Fordham Law

Venable Finds Unique Marketing Opportunity at Annual Food Show

Silvia Hodges in New York Law Journal, March 08, 2012

Media Source

Sandwiched between the pastry and the cappuccino booths, and down the aisle from the grilled seafood demonstration, attorneys from Venable reached out to attendees at the International Restaurant & Foodservice Show of New York this week in what they said was an effort to increase the firm's visibility, find business leads and learn more about the issues in their clients' business.

Venable lawyers also hosted a March 4 seminar on immigration issues in the restaurant business. A few days later, Fox Rothschild lawyer Carolyn Richmond partnered with Lisa Friel, formerly with the Manhattan District Attorney's Office, for a discussion on how restaurants can avoid sexual harassment charges.

For Ms. Richmond, who has attended this annual trade show for most of the last 10 years, the main value is learning more about the industry, she said.

It's a "plus to see what some of the trends are and helps you as a practitioner to be better informed of what's going on in the industry," said Ms. Richmond, a board member of the New York City chapter of the New York State Restaurant Association.

Michael Volpe, a partner and head of Venable's New York labor and employment practice, said the event for the firm was very positive.

"We thought the show exposed us to a number of businesses of very different sizes," Mr. Volpe said. "We think it's going to provide some opportunity to us in the coming months."

Attending trade shows "makes a lot of sense," for attorneys, said Silvia Hodges, an adjunct professor at Fordham University School of Law who teaches law firm management and marketing.

"You fish where the fish are," she said. "With the increasing competition, law firms have to look at new ways to differentiate themselves."

But lawyers need to be aware of the image they project at the show.

"You can look like a sales person or you can look as the problem solver who gets the industry," said Ms. Hodges, who is also the director of research services at software company TyMetrix Legal Analytics.

It is more common for lawyers to attend industry trade shows when prospective clients are start-up companies, when firms are highly specialized in an industry or when their client is the trade association, said Mary K. Young, a Washington-based law firm consultant at the Zeughauser Group.

Since exhibiting at a trade show requires a solid investment of time, it is important for firms to evaluate whether they can reach the right people and at what cost, said Ms. Young.

"Are there better uses of my time or money to reach these same folks?" she asked.

Staffing the Booth

The restaurant industry event at Manhattan's Jacob K. Javits Convention Center attracted an estimated 20,000 people, many of them restaurant owners, chefs, suppliers and those directly tied to the restaurant industry, according to Ron Mathews, the show's director.

While a few law firms have exhibited in past years, this was the first time a firm sponsored a seminar, Mr. Mathews said.

Mr. Volpe said that Venable paid about $10,000 to participate. He estimated that the eight lawyers who took turns staffing the booth interacted with about 100 people each day and they picked up good business leads.

While Venable has taken part in other trade shows, such as those for electronic retail and technology companies, this was the firm's first exhibit at the New York restaurant show.

Venable, with more than 500 lawyers, generated $337.5 million in gross revenue in 2010, ranking 78th on the Am Law 100 last year. Mr. Volpe estimated that the hospitality practice firmwide contributes around 5 percent of the firm's revenue.

In New York, the law firm has about nine lawyers focused on the food service and hospitality industries, handling labor and employment, real estate, intellectual property and transactional services, Mr. Volpe said. The firm represents restaurants, catering and special event companies, entertainment facilities and hotels, including Marriott, Classic Party Rentals and Zaro's Bread Basket.

At the Javits Center, Venable attorneys gamely competed for attention with groups serving fresh-off-the-grill treats. They greeted attendees with a pitch about the firm and offered packaged cookies and foam stress balls.

One challenge for exhibitors is to meet decision-makers or those who influence outside-counsel hires.

Mr. Mathews, the event's director, said a law firm does not need to meet with all 20,000 attendees for the show to be worth its while. There is no "other time during the entire year for the New York area," he said, "where you find this many owners, buyers and decision makers in this room at one time."

Michael Dolah, an account executive at Atlantic Capital Lenders Corp., which provides financing to businesses, strolled through the trade show on March 6 and struck up a conversation with the Venable lawyers.

Afterward, Mr. Dolah said in an interview that he talked with the lawyers about his own work and that he would consider referring clients to the firm because of their niche specialty.

"I think they're smart to be here," he said. "Every expo makes a difference. If you're not here, you're forgotten."

Another woman who stopped at the Venable booth declined to give her name because she said she was skipping a college class. She said she thought the foam balls Venable handed out "were kind of cute."

Substantive Presentations

In addition to greeting individual attendees, Venable counsel Kristine Sova and associate Dismas Locaria presented a March 4 seminar on immigration compliance. About 15 people attended, Ms. Sova said.

A second legal discussion was lead by Ms. Richmond, co-chair of Fox Rothschild's hospitality practice group, and Ms. Friel on sexual harassment in the industry, which is known for close work spaces, long days, a young workforce and alcohol within an arm's reach.

Ms. Friel, former chief of the sex crimes prosecution unit in the Manhattan District Attorney's Office, is now a vice president at T&M Protection Resources, which provides security-consulting services.

One of the half-dozen attendees at the sexual harassment discussion said she was the human resources director for a restaurant group that is a client of Ms. Richmond. Another said she attended for educational purposes, adding that the Mexican restaurant where she works has "a big line of lawyers working" for the business.

Both Ms. Sova and Ms. Richmond stressed in separate interviews that finding new clients is not the only point of participating in a trade show. The events offer them the opportunity to become better informed about trends and issues in their clients' industry.

For instance, Ms. Richmond said she has noticed more vendor use of iPads and cloud computing, information that is useful to her in drafting confidentiality agreements.

Some of Ms. Richmond's clients include restaurants run by chefs Mario Batali and Bobby Flay, the Japanese restaurant Nobu and the Heartland Brewery.

Ms. Sova, a member of the Restaurant Association, which sponsored the trade show, said, "I want to know my clients' industry and I want them to feel that I care and understand what they deal with on a day-to-day basis."