A polymath architect/engineer with dizzying A-List event credentials, new recruit, John Aiani, brings fascinating insight to his strategic sales role at CDI World USA. We recently Zoomed-in for a chat.
It’s not every day you encounter an individual like John Aiani. His expansive career has led him from part-time work as a carpenter in his study downtime through to managing the restoration of the U.S Mint building in New Orleans – including building a museum inside it. And that’s not even scratching the surface.
John, your credit list in the trade show, events and install industry stretches further than a Marvel Studios blockbuster.
That’s what happens when you spend 30 years doing something you love!
We have to begin with the obvious question – how did it all start?
New York City 1996. In daylight hours I was studying the noble arts of architecture and engineering. In the moonlight, however, I took my carpentry and drafting skills directly where they led me – which was to the Javits Event Center and to the wide world of trade shows. The very first exhibition I worked was the New York Toy Fair.
You were bitten by the trade show bug?
I quickly sensed a good fit for myself in the industry and also appreciated what the intensive business of assembling exhibits was teaching me about architecture and engineering. I decided to ride the horse in the direction it was going. I joined the union as a carpenter and started getting work on the show floor while at still at school.
What about after graduation?
Moving to plan, I worked in the architecture and engineering fields, initially within the traditional “permanent” building market. But very soon, the kinds of projects I managed put me back in touch with the events sector. In one sense, you can’t escape the events world because it touches all professional and human dimensions.
Did you feel you had a leg-up because of your Javits moonlighting?
Exactly. I started to integrate the two spheres in my mind. No one
in the traditional building market back then knew the big players in
international events and exhibits – “Exhibit group who?” But I’d been soaking
it all up on the show room floor for a few years by that point. I saw how
exhibition companies operated and picked up their practices and perspectives at
They valued your insider knowledge?
My brick-and-mortar colleagues were saying “We need someone like you on our side of the wall!” So I started consulting for the trade show industry and museums right away. I relocated to Georgia and began working on Tier 1 projects – Georgia Sports Hall of Fame, CNN Studios, World of Coke, Georgia Aquarium…
And you also threw yourself into events
Yes – playing about every role on the team. I’ve done a lot of work as a contract employee for major event companies such as Freeman, MC2, Exhibit Group Giltspur. It’s been a ride.
You haven’t mentioned the programs for Canon, or traveling the country with big brand roadshows, or managing mobile truck tours for fan zones at the Super Bowl and World Series.
That’s when I really started enjoying working with live events!
So how are you looking to channel such wide-ranging expertise into CDI World’s current operation?
Good global question! One vital part of my new job will be to activate and maintain strong relationships with high quality local vendors and contract talent across the board. It helps that I’ve worked with virtually all the exhibit companies in Metro-Atlanta, even helped start a few. I think my experience in different sides of the business will be valuable, too – from VR, to graphics, to the shop. I’m happy to put all this knowledge to service as the company moves ahead.
If the entire sales process could be distilled into a single question for you, what would that be?
“How do you effectively sell something that is truly beneficial to the end user?” It’s the fundamental question that you have to keep asking and answering.
Are any new patterns emerging?
There’s much greater interest in trade show booths that are lighter
in weight, easier to ship and less time consuming to set up. If you’re able to achieve
those objectives while maintaining brand values, then exhibitors will
appreciate the work you do for them. Even heavy equipment manufacturers are
exploring these options with us in order to improve their cost control. It’s
all about helping clients better use their marketing money to increase the
impact of their efforts.
Do permanent installations feature in your strategic thinking?
Oh yes – this is where my bricks-and-mortar background comes in. I think many companies are beginning to think more flexibly about the ways they present products to customers. Trade shows will always be popular and have many benefits but they can be complemented by permanent or semi-permanent exhibition spaces or showrooms. CDI World has the expertise and experience to create both kinds of environments and that’s very exciting.
So the overall purpose is to help clients put on the best show in whatever form or space is best.
Precisely. And to do that you need to listen and observe so you can really understand the client’s programs and objectives. A lot of people focus on “return on investment.” Not so many focus on a “return on objectives” as well. It’s also great to show clients how cool something can be – to open them up to new possibilities that are in accord with both their budgets and their goals for the brand.
In this series we always ask interviewees what kind of play they were instinctively drawn to as a child and if it has any relation to their current job.
My Dad is an engineer. His biggest professional accomplishment was developing the radar systems for Air Traffic Control. He’s already in the Smithsonian, which makes him feel old. He also worked on the robotics and bottling systems for Coke, RC Cola and Pepsi. As a kid, I was always excited to see my Dad’s projects and he would bring me into the shop to show me what he was working on. It just fascinated me. And to nurture my interest, he would buy me Legos.
The proto-engineer’s toy.
Yes. I had more Legos than any kid I ever knew! And at his desk, he would pose little engineering problems for me and I’d build something out of Legos to solve the challenge. He knew what he was doing, in terms of education, in cultivating my skills and interest, but for me it was just pure fun. Now, I feel like the metal systems I’ve since gotten into, the graphics and so on, are all just an extension of Legos. I go back to Legos all the time – sometimes I’ll even model booths out of Legos for clients. “Take it home for your kids!” People love Legos. It’s a fact of life!
Another standard question – what inspires you most in your work?
I enjoy people. I’m a “people person” and I love listening to
their challenges and helping them find solutions. That entire process I find fulfilling.
And when a client walks away from a show and says, “I want to do that again! I
can’t wait till next year!” There is no greater satisfaction or inspiration to
me. Even if there are challenges during the show, if a client says “I didn’t
have to worry about a thing,” I’m happy. Ecstatic.
Is there anything, beyond work, which you find particularly fulfilling?
Family is huge for me. I have a 12-year-old son, so bike riding and Legos feature prominently. Working in the woodshop with him, teaching him the tools – this resets me, for sure. My religion is really important in my life. Taking the time for spiritual practice and volunteering to help others in difficulty is also very grounding – during big storms, for instance. I feel it’s important for my son to see that when there are natural disasters, our family steps up and asks “How can we help?” And we pitch in. Whether its storm or coastal damage, we help people sweep water out of their homes, bring food and clothing and just generally offer comfort during tough times.
Final question. If CDI World offered to support a personal “passion project” of yours – what would the project be?
Stargazing is a family passion and we have quite a nice telescope. In fact, as a kid, I saw Haley’s Comet and attended many telescope conventions with my Dad. Like Legos, of course I’m continuing the tradition with my son. He’s seen meteor showers, I’ve taken him to solar eclipses, he’s become quite the professional astronomer. So, if CDI World were to get involved, I’d be keen to build a proper backyard woodshop for my own furniture projects, with a very special feature: a custom rooftop with a camping and stargazing platform.
A family observatory is definitely a stellar idea! Congratulations on joining the company John, and thank you for taking the time to tell us about your passions.
It’s been my pleasure.