Anyone who has ever thrown a party knows that it’s a lot of work. You have to start planning ahead of time, and you have to be ready when a few of those plans require some last-minute flexibility.

Now, imagine you’re throwing the biggest party in the promotional products industry, while planning the biggest trade show in the business. While holding that thought, imagine the NFL stadium where you’re throwing that party cancels your contract after you sold half the tickets.

That was the situation that PPAI found itself in 60 days before The PPAI Expo when the NFL informed the staff that Usher’s Super Bowl halftime performance would result in The PPAI Expo Party getting the boot from Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas. To make matters more tense, running The PPAI Expo and the party was a recently promoted show manager running her first trade show.

What she and the PPAI team pulled off under these circumstances was the greatest show on Earth – as anyone who attended could attest. Below is the behind-the-scenes story of how it all came together, through interviews with the people responsible for making the impossible happen.

A Disastrous Email: “It was just pure panic mode.”

In past years, The PPAI Expo Party was held at Allegiant Stadium – where the NFL’s Las Vegas Raiders play – and the stadium technically had the option to cancel its contract up to 30 days after it was signed. With the Super Bowl in Las Vegas in February 2024, that was extended to 60 days, as the NFL was also allowed to step in and cancel the contract.

Ellen Tucker (PPAI Vice President of Exhibitions and Revenue): We had made the decision to announce that the party was already at Allegiant. We felt fairly confident.

Ashley Van Der Stuyf (PPAI Show Manager): We were getting really close to that 60-day mark. We had sold about 700 tickets to the party at Allegiant, so about 50% of the tickets we planned to sell. I was hopeful that they would wait the 60 days and tell us yes, we could move forward with the event.

Tucker: If you asked my team, they would tell you that I was the most optimistic of anybody. I was probably 95% optimistic.

Van Der Stuyf: Ellen was the most optimistic.

Allegiant Stadium and the NFL took the full sixty days, and on November 8, two months before the party, informed PPAI that the contract was canceled.

Van Der Stuyf: When I found out I was on the phone, and when the email came through I literally just shut down. I was like, h my gosh.’ And then it was just pure panic mode. It was a little scary to tell Ellen.

Tucker: I will forever remember the moment that I walked into Ashley’s office.

Van Der Stuyf: She came into my office, and I told her that I had some bad news.

Tucker: Sometimes when Ashley says ‘I have some bad news,’ the news is really small, bad news. This was bigger bad news. But whether it’s the smallest of bad news or the biggest of bad news. I always have the utmost faith that my team is going to be able to pull off whatever is needed in order to provide our members with a successful event.

Van Der Stuyf: By the time I told Ellen, I’d already had my ‘oh no’ moment. I think I was excited for the challenge.

Tucker: I would say that I was calmer. I think Ashley was going through the process of having to think through every detail. Her demeanor was calm, but you could tell there was a lot of thinking and planning going on in her head.

Van Der Stuyf: We called Allegiant as soon as we got the email, and they explained that Usher’s Super Bowl halftime performance had extensive rigging, and they weren’t able to flip the field for us. They just wanted to have the concrete on the floor. They needed to have a lot of equipment on the field leading up to the Super Bowl.

Tucker: I think neither of us were looking forward to having to inform the rest of the staff. Dale Denham [PPAI’s president and CEO] didn’t know yet. I walked into Dale’s office, and said, ‘I’ve got some bad news.’ I won’t repeat the word he reacted with.

A Leap Of Faith: “This is the obvious choice”

Rewind almost five months, and in April 2023, PPAI was looking to fill the position of show manager, a crucial role responsible for the majority of details associated with putting on The PPAI Expo. Van Der Stuyf had less experience than the industry average for this job, so other candidates were brought in for interviews.

Tucker:  Every time we were going through that process, we kept saying to ourselves, ‘This person is great, but they’re not Ashley.’

Tucker advocated for Van Der Stuyf, and PPAI chose to promote her to associate show manager while assisting her with outside support and mentorship.

Tucker: Dale had the same reaction that I did when I suggested it, which was, ‘This is the obvious choice,’ and all of her colleagues had no hesitation about her taking on the additional responsibility.

Time For A Backup Plan: “We had to replan every bit of logistics.”

With two months to plan a whole new party, there were no bad ideas, but Van Der Stuyf had been sitting on her own contingency theme for a long time.

Van Der Stuyf: The original theme for the party was going to be “The Ultimate Tailgate.” We had to replan every bit of logistics for the party. Every sponsorship and detail was tailgate themed. We even ended up cancelling our contract with a band and looking for another band.

Tucker: Within a week, Ashley was presenting to us a few different options.

Van Der Stuyf: I had this idea for a show opener back when we were invoicing for the 2022 PPAI Expo. I was working from home, and I had music playing and “The Greatest Show” came on from the movie The Greatest Showman. I got so pumped listening to it, I thought, ‘This would be such a great show opener.’ I think I wanted to do it last year, but it just felt out of theme with us going to Allegiant.

Tucker: For the previous 18 months Ashley has been talking about doing a show opening to the song “The Greatest Show.” The number of times she’s made me hear the first two minutes of that song…

Van Der Stuyf: The theme we came up with was vintage circus meets cirque.

Tucker: Ashley had this whole storyboard for how it would come together.

Van Der Stuyf: When you do circus-themed, I think it can get cheesy really fast, and I wanted to stay away from cheesy.

We went through a couple of options in terms of different off-site venues we had considered earlier in the year.

Tucker: At 60 days out, there’s a good chance those off-site options don’t even have availability anymore. On-site at Mandalay Bay would be easier for our guests.

We had narrowed it down to a party at a ballroom or a party at another location on-site.

Dale Denham (PPAI’s president and CEO): I was reluctant to do a ballroom, because most events I’ve attended in ballrooms have left me unimpressed.

Tucker: For the other option, we would have had to limit the number of attendees. Ashley looked at Dale and me, and she said, ‘The PPAI Expo Party is meant to be open for all, not limited to a few.’ And that is the reason that we made the decision to move forward with a party in the ballroom.

Dale’s and my biggest concern with doing it in the ballroom was that we didn’t have the vision of being able to change a ballroom to make it not feel like a ballroom, the way Ashley did.

I don’t think we’ll ever doubt that Ashley can do something like that again.

Last Minute Scrambling: “The aerialist didn’t have the proper insurance.”

Van Der Stuyf’s vision accounted for every detail and imagined a grand spectacle, but keep in mind that she was simultaneously running the largest trade show in the industry for the first time, and there were still party wrinkles to iron out when PPAI traveled to Las Vegas.

Van Der Stuyf: There were still some items that we had to take care of while we were on site. We weren’t sure how many people were going to show up.

There were some entertainment hiccups that we had to go through as well. The aerialist didn’t have the proper insurance that Mandalay Bay required. That was a last-minute run-around a couple days before.

It was a very last-minute planning process, which is something I don’t like very much. We were still finalizing games and ticket counts and prize bins the day of the event.

Tucker: We had to have faith in Ashley. And our attendees had to have faith in us, which our marketing team helped with.

Unbeknown to Van Der Stuyf, PPAI had already decided how much faith they had in her. Having handled The PPAI Expo planning so well up to that point, she would receive a promotion to show manager at an on-site all-staff breakfast the day before the party. Unaware the announcement was coming, the staff stood up to applause, while Van Der Stuyf let loose a few tears.

Tucker: Making the decision to elevate her on site in front of her peers to show manager was a really easy decision. We expected it to take a couple years, but she had proven herself.

Van Der Stuyf: I was not expecting that at all. I was an emotional wreck that day. There’s a lot of emotions being on site with Expo and then having that moment was the cherry on top, especially in front of everybody. It was just nice to get that appreciation and gratitude.

Tucker: I wasn’t expecting the staff to give her a standing ovation. I think that speaks volumes to how her peers see her. She deserved every moment of that recognition.

Let The Games Begin: “It is better than the original would have been.”

By evening, everything was in place, and the fear that no one would show up was soon replaced by the fear that the attendance would surpass capacity. Throughout the night, more than 1,000 people walked into the event.

Tucker: Not all at once. Or we would have been in trouble with the fire marshal.

Four featured performers included a body balancing duo, a hula hoop act, a pair of skaters and a chair balancing act.

Tucker: One of the main skaters had the other skater on a neck ring and was spinning her around on this very tiny platform. The number of gasps you heard from the audience…

Van Der Stuyf: The skating act scared me to death. I thought that was crazy, but it was fun. And the band was really good.

Nearly every carnival game imaginable was set up for guests to participate in.

Tucker: The part of the party that surprised me the most was the success of the carnival games and how excited people were to win tickets from participating in the carnival games and put those into opportunities to win prizes from our supplier community.

Van Der Stuyf: After the first 30 minutes, when there was a good crowd in there, I ordered a drink and started letting loose.

Denham: As I stood in the room and observed how much fun everyone was having as well as reflecting on my own experience, I said to Ellen, ‘This is not only a good replacement, it is better than our original event would have been.’

Van Der Stuyf: I have never had so many people come up to me and shake my hand or give me a hug and say that this was such a cool event and that they had a lot of fun. So that was really nice.

Tucker: Walking into the space, it was amazing to see how well her storyboard came to fruition. I felt that I’d made the best professional decision I’ve ever made in my life in promoting her to associate show manager.

Van Der Stuyf: It feels really good to have run on my first PPAI Expo. It wasn’t the easiest. This is the third one I’ve been involved in. I feel like the other two were a little bit more seamless. And that’s OK. I wouldn’t want to do it any other way.

Ultimately, the party went so well that Van Der Stuyf doesn’t even think she’ll hold a grudge against Usher for kicking PPAI out of Allegiant Stadium.

Van Der Stuyf: I actually sang my sister’s wedding toast to the tune of an Usher song. I’ll probably let it slide.