Every World Dairy Expo has had a theme since 1988, but how are they created?

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer
A look at this year's show-stopping display at the Coliseum, modeled after the theme "Instrumental to the Industry."

The annual theme of the World Dairy Expo has become a huge part of the show all the way down to a yearly reveal ceremony, but there's more to it than just picking a theme and running with it.

Former Expo general manager Tom McKittrick came up with the idea for the 1988 International Ayrshire Show during his first year as manager. He said he was inspired by the Scottish origins of the breed, so he decorated the showring with castles and rock walls to give attendees a true Scotland feel. After that, McKittrick kept up the practice, and though he resigned in 2007, Expo still includes a theme even 14 years later.

The 2021 theme was "Instrumental to the Industry" which played on earthy shades of green, purple and gold, nature-y displays and, of course, music. Marketing materials, posters and more included images of guitars, saxophones and musical notes, and Expo even had an emphasis on music including from the New Glarus Yodeling Club, Dillon Carmichael, Meghan Patrick and jazz group Dave Adler and the Dairy Tones.

"Dairy Expo is the dairy event of the world, and it needs to be an event," McKittrick said. "I think the inclusion of ... something new and different and interesting, like the color of the shavings, adds to the excitement and interest and fun of the event."

The color of the wood shavings on the floor of the Coliseum showring is also coordinated with the theme each year, this year's shavings being a deep purple. Katie Schmitt, communications manager of World Dairy Expo, said the unveiling of the shavings color is one of the most highly-anticipated moments of Expo every year.

"The colored shavings is a tradition that started in the 1980s. It has become a historical tradition for so many people and everybody who exhibits at the dairy cattle show. Each year our colored shavings change colors, which is very unique to World Dairy Expo. Currently, we're working with American wood fibers to create the dyed shavings."

Schmitt said the showring floor receives 9 tons of the shavings prior to Expo's opening day, with another few tons put on top to refresh throughout the week. She described it as one of Expo's "most well-kept secrets."

The Tanbark got a makeover this year as it relocated to the Arena building, giving it more room inside to host events at all times of day.

Theme development takes a long time, which is why it begins about 18 months prior to each show, Schmitt said. She explained that it begins with a brainstorm session between several Expo staff members where they begin throwing words and phrases up on a whiteboard. Gradually, the ideas are narrowed down to a few concepts, which are given to an outside design team to come up with images, colors and a comprehensive look.

The design team then comes back with "masterpieces," Schmitt said. Out of those mastered designs, the staff pick one and go to town with it, starting with marketing and promotional materials and fleshing out with the showring design. This year's showring featured a purple and gold gazebo accented with a bench, bicycle, streetlamp, cow statue and more.

"We want to make sure we're coming up with something that encompasses all of dairy. We don't want to be exclusive to any of our groups," Schmitt said. "We've really tried to pick phrasing and images that are cohesive across the industry."

The mums are also an important part of showring design. This year, the ring featured 115 mums in shades of purple, yellow, orange and white, with more than 200 extra mums decorating the rest of the Expo grounds.

McKittrick said it can take a while to get to the "ultimate theme." In 1988 when the first theme was chosen, he remembers one staff member offering the word "clocks" during a brainstorming session. While he initially wanted to veto the idea, "clocks" eventually turned into the 1988 theme "Time Well Spent."

"In my mind I was like, 'That's not a good idea at all. Clocks, that doesn't even make sense,'" McKittrick said. "We kept going through the strategic planning of the theme development and we kept narrowing it down as it kept coming up. Well, eventually that turned into the theme that was called 'Time Well Spent.' From a marketing standpoint, the slogan ... was a great one. It translated into the clocktower showring, which was really fun and a very beautiful backdrop for the cattle show."

Having a theme also allows the show to shine in other ways that aren't just about business – it also can include the international, friendship and connection aspects, McKittrick said. While business and money is centric to Expo, there's so much more to it that encompasses the humanity of dairy and agriculture.

Korrine Engelke, director of event design at Event Essentials, was the woman running the show for this year's Tanbark experience. The Tanbark moved from the Sales Pavilion to the Arena building to allow it to be a more central gathering place on Expo grounds. The Tanbark hosted 8 am Tanbark Talks, a live taping of the US Farm Report, the Sunset Celebration and plenty of space to talk over lunch each day.

Korrine Engelke

The Tanbark also followed the theme's green, purple and gold colors and included grassy dividers that created multiple spaces with different purposes while all being in the same open-air building. Engelke said the building also has good airflow and plenty of space that would make it safer for people to gather with regards to pandemic concerns.

"This year, there was this vision to be able to outfit it .... with many different activities so that those here at World Dairy Expo can come and experience it at many different levels," Engelke said. "So for example, in the morning, we've got some keynote speakers, we're serving breakfast and lunch out of this space. There is a happy hour also with some food items for purchase and live music during those those happy hours. Friday night, there's going to be the ... concert."

The layout is designed to accommodate many different kinds of activities while not moving the furniture and decorations already in the space, so Engelke explained that the tables, chairs and other things are very thoughtfully placed so as to minimize movement. It also takes time to predict how people might move within the space. Engelke put lower tables and chairs towards the stage in the Tanbark for people to sit and watch an event, while higher tables and chairs were put on the other end for people to sit and eat food. The contrast provides a more appealing look, she added.

While the significance behind planning the Tanbark may be overlooked, Engelke said her work has a big impact on how people navigate the events she's designed for nearly 20 years.

"It really just comes down to knowing how we as humans like to interact. ... I'm constantly learning which is, I think, a beautiful thing," Engelke said. "It's just creating a space that's functional and comfortable and engaging."