A Word About Senior Expos

September 1, 2023 at 12:00 a.m.
This isn't really a photo from a senior expo, but the t-shirt the guy is wearing caught my eye
This isn't really a photo from a senior expo, but the t-shirt the guy is wearing caught my eye

...by Michelle Roedell, Editor, Northwest Prime Time

I remember back to those pre-pandemic days when each week many senior events took center stage throughout the region. It is heartening to see that in-person events are beginning to proliferate once again in the community.

(Let’s all cross our fingers that COVID variants don’t keep us isolated once again. I plan to get my COVID, flu and RSV shots this fall. How about you?)

In the meantime, when it’s safe, I look forward to the return of Senior Expos—conventions designed for those most wondrous of all beings, older adults.

From my perspective, the “mini expos” that dotted the Puget Sound landscape were even better than full-scale Expos for their accessibility and frequency. My memory cells seem to recall that small-scale senior and health-related expos happened several times each year, whereas full-scale Expos were few and far between.

Senior Expos, whether maxi or mini, were chock-full of informational booths from just about any senior-related vendor you can imagine. They offered free health screenings, free food, workshops, seminars and speakers, and, best of the best… raffles going off with a bang throughout the event. I can personally attest to the eagerness of expo-goers when it came to those raffles. (More on that later.) Some events had entertainment, fashion shows, dancing, “Antique Roadshow” style events and other creative activities for all to enjoy. The occasional large-scale Senior Expos that popped up now and again had the extra wow factor of celebrity guests and high-profile expert presenters.

Seniors would line up early for the well-attended localized senior events, often hosted by senior service or community groups. Large-scale Senior Expos… meh… not so much lining up. (Again, more on that later.)

Senior newspapers like Northwest Prime Time typically served as one of the media partners for these events—providing free ads and other promotional considerations in exchange for a booth space. We would dutifully haul in copies of our newspaper and set up our booth accompanied by big smiles on our faces. I relished the opportunity to interact with readers. Chris, co-owner and ad manager, took advantage of all those booths, roaming the aisles looking for new ad leads. Even more important to him (sugar addict that he is) was the chance to trawl those booths for the free candy on offer. When it comes to candy, Senior Expos are basically Halloween for grownups (costumes not required except for the fact that crimson hats were in abundance, thank you Red Hat Society).  

Tacoma had a great event every year, Senior Citizens Awareness Day. It was always fun, well-attended with a tradition of clearing the floor at the end of the day for ballroom dancing accompanied by a live big band. I remember another successful annual event in the Bellevue area that featured vintage fashion shows with vintage models and many other festive activities. Some of the senior centers threw fantastic events.

Our predecessors were no strangers to Senior Expos, including the lovely Northwest Prime Time Journal and, later, the temporary “interloper,” Get Up & Go. (I talk about the lovely Journal plus that darned interloper in My first blog post.)  The original Northwest Prime Time Journal sponsored “Senior Day” at the Washington State Fair in Puyallup, a successful venture for a while. Ads in the paper offered coupons for free entry at the fair, plus an invitation to visit the “senior pavilion” for free coffee, pastries, live music, and—of course—a plethora of vendor booths offering senior products and information.

One impressive accomplishment from interloper Get Up & Go was launching an authentic Senior Expo at the Seattle Convention Center, with celebrity guest Richard Simmons. While I don’t think the vendors (who paid A LOT for booth spaces) were overjoyed at the modest turnout, it wasn’t what you’d call a total bust.

Other Senior Expos weren’t so lucky. One event in particular comes to mind. While it had spectacular promotions and marketing, including radio, television and newspaper coverage (this was pre-social media days), it had a few things going against it—from the Seattle Center location with its notoriously difficult parking and no place for a senior van to pull up in front of the building, a title that seniors did not relate to, AND a cover charge (a true no-no). It turned out to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day (well, maybe not quite that awful, but not good). We predicted the sparse turnout and had given away our booth space to another vendor.

I suspected that bad turnout because I had received a masterclass on the ins & outs of Senior Expos from a woman who knew what she was talking about. Her terrific experience included organizing many highly successful Senior Expos in Arizona, that true mecca for retirees. She contacted us about partnering on a Senior Expo in Seattle because her research showed that our region was sadly lacking in the Senior Expo department. She visited venues throughout the greater Seattle area and concluded that it (at least at that time), didn’t have the right place to host a Senior Expo. Everything was either too expensive, too big, or too small, it didn’t have easy parking and/or lacked a place for buses full of enthusiastic seniors to pull up right in front.

Goodbye Senior Expo lady. She made a hasty exit.

Chris and I hosted a few miniscule senior events including a small travel expo at the Museum of Flight, and a “north of the canal” retirement housing expo at North Seattle Community College. Despite a couple of glitches, we received RAVE reviews from the seniors and vendors in attendance, who all said they were looking forward to the next event. BUT we were exhausted from all the planning and organizing, plus made next to nothing for our efforts.

Still, memories from those events remain sweet.

One of the sweet memories was how the attendees would gather each hour on the hour for the raffle drawing. I can still recall the eager faces looking up at me as I drew the winning number. Wish I could remember what the grand prize was, but I do know that seniors stayed until the very end to see if they won.

It was fun to make the day for one lucky senior!

If anyone out there is planning another Senior Expo—either maxi or mini—let me know!

Michelle Roedell can be reached at editor@northwestprimetime.com.

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