by Agatha Gilmore | December 01, 2011

Like many independent trade show and event planners, Denise Medved makes important decisions every day. As president and CEO of Annandale, Va.-based The Tiny Kitchen Inc., a live-events and media company in the consumer cooking and entertaining industry, she often finds herself wondering: What has worked for a gathering like this in the past? What hasn't worked? Who might have good advice to share?

Medved's primary source for answers: fellow members of the Santa Monica, Calif.-based Society of Independent Show Organizers.

"SISO is terrific in terms of networking, resources, and access to people and ideas," says Medved, who serves on the association's board. "There's so much information exchanged, so many ideas changing hands. It's an amazing organization where competitors are helping each other with best practices and problem solving."

That's exactly the kind of camaraderie that the founders of SISO were aiming for. The organization was started in 1990 by a group of 12 pioneering entrepreneurs who wanted an informal way to get together and share information, network, and have candid discussions about trade show and event-planning issues. Nearly 22 years later, the group has blossomed into a 135-member-strong coalition of companies large and small, representing close to 3,500 global events.

It isn't just its informal, noncompetitive vibe and transparency that make SISO work. According to executive director Lew Shomer, it's also a sense that all members, regardless of size, are on equal footing. The association holds two conferences a year -- the CEO Summit and the Executive Conference -- at which chief executives from global corporations such as UBM or Reed Exhibitions mingle with small-business owners who might host just one show a year.

"When everybody gets together, there are no agendas," Shomer says. "I can ask anybody who's there, any CEO, what they've done, what they plan to do, and get an honest answer. If somebody's actually failed miserably, they don't give me a press release. They tell me, 'I made the stupidest mistake I could've made. I did this, that or the other thing, and you want to stay away from that.' "

The overall effect, says Medved, is that members make her "feel like they are really, truly colleagues of mine sharing the same industry."