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Networking opportunities abound at Ship-Shape Showcase


PALMETTO - The line behind the artichoke dip continued to grow at Orange Blossom Catering's booth. It was just after 5 p.m. and as the crowd piled in to Port Manatee for the Manatee Chamber of Commerce's annual Ship-Shape Showcase, food samples and business cards were changing hands at a breakneck pace.

Ship-Shape Showcase
Scott Johnson, left, and Troy Williams man the Wholesale Landscape Supply booth at the Ship-Shape Showcase. 

Caterer Joanna Poor said her company, Orange Blossom Catering, attends the Ship-Shape Showcase every year because of the excellent exposure the booth space provides.

"A lot of people are looking for a good caterer, and it gives them a chance to check out our food," Poor said. "Everybody loves it, and we get business for it."

Poor said she had already gotten two solid leads within the first half hour, and the ever-increasing line that formed behind the dips, pitas, assorted baked goods and dwindling supply of meatballs suggested more to come.

Marie Pender, vice president of membership development and services at the Chamber, said that is what this event is all about: networking, connecting and showcasing local businesses. The event featured hundreds of attendees and 51 businesses pitching their products and services with booth displays.

"We're down four from last year, which was a surprise," she said. "We expected it to be worse than that."

Because of the economic strains on the community, Pender said the Chamber tried to keep the fees for participation as low as possible at $300 or less. All businesses represented at the event were chamber members.

"Money's tight so we're offering payment plans," she said. "Most of our members are small businesses. As you walk around you see a little bit of everything. Some of them simply don't have the money. If you need to make payments, that's fine. We just want you to be successful."

Ship-Shape Showcase
James Schulz, director of university outreach at Argosy University, samples some of Orange Blossom Catering's offerings.

Brett Allred is the owner of Bradenton-based Commercial Air and Refrigeration, a first-timer at the showcase. Affordable exposure drew him to the event.

"Everybody's got to have exposure, and the price is right, too," he said. "There are strictly business owners here, and you've got to network. It's free, and it's face-to-face."

Troy Williams is the regional sales manager for Wholesale Landscape Supply. This is the company's first year at the event. Although the business has been in Bradenton for 22 years, the company became a member of the chamber about four months ago. Williams said his company decided to join because it was a good avenue to get their name out to the community. The Ship-Shape Showcase is an extension of that, he said.

"Obviously we want to use this as a vehicle to expose our company to chamber members," Williams said. "We also believe it's good for networking, that we can now see other local businesses that maybe we weren't aware of so we can frequent their business as well."

Williams' booth offered a display of live grass samples and mulches. He said he was eager to use the event to demonstrate some of the company's new sustainable products like eucalyptus mulch and drought-tolerant zoysia grass.

Across from Wholesale Landscape Supply's booth, the lawn mowers, leaf blowers and chainsaws of Pro Cutter Supply looked poised to wage war with the neatly manicured turf across the aisle.

John Rice was the 2008 chairman of the Chamber and is the current owner of Pro Cutter Supply, which he founded in March. He said current economic strains make events like the Ship-Shape Showcase invaluable.

Ship-Shape Showcase
Hundreds of people filed in to Port Manatee to see local businesses showcase their products and services. 

"It's more important now than it ever could be in terms of making contacts," Rice said. "Not only with other businesses, but with potential customers as well. In many cases with a small business, this is probably the best opportunity in the world for them to get face time. Advertising is an expensive method to get the word out, but with these events you can give it a personal touch, get face time with potential clients and be able to draw thoughts and ideas off of one another."

Another important aspect of the event, Pender said, is providing exposure of Port Manatee to local business owners.

"It's a hometown treasure," she said. "It's going to continue to grow more and more."

Narrated bus tours of Port Manatee presented guests with information on the economic impact the port has on the community.

Jill VanderPol, communications manager for Port Manatee, said she hopes the tours will create advocates for the port within the business community.

"A lot of times after taking that tour, people are just astonished at the economic impact the port has on the community without creating any higher taxes," she said. "We want people to be informed, support the port and explain to people what it is they do. This is a great event for us, it's one of the chambers most popular after-hours events, and we take great pride in that."


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