Mike Sessoms and Gus Shamoon of Wild Bill’s Tobacco Discuss SSE
“Don’t get me wrong. I’ll still go to them, but if I have to tell you which is my favorite, by far, SSE.”
What Gus Shamoon means by “them,” is probably obvious, but in case there’s any doubt, he’s talking about the other industry trade shows, the ones in large, open spaces where after the first day, you find yourself wishing for an event transit system and a new set of feet.
It’s a three-way conversation that’s going on. The topic is Smoke Shop Events, the trade show that is not a trade show. The participants: Gus Shamoon, SSE founder and director, Mike Sessoms and yours truly. It’s taking place at Gus’s request. He wanted to talk about his experience. For the record, in my experience, this has never happened. Sure, plenty of people are willing to talk when prodded, but most are too busy with the daily grind to find the time to outright volunteer. As the Purchasing Manager for Wild Bill’s Tobacco, an industry behemoth with nearly 100 stores under its banner, Gus should be no exception. But somehow, he is.
Unlike most industry members in his position, Gus was never a hard sell on the concept. The idea made sense from day one.
“They didn’t even have to try hard,” he recounts of that first time he received his invitation. “I was in. I thought it was unique.”
It’s a pretty solid pitch for the buyer. Five-star meals, travel, and luxury accommodations are all covered. Plus, they get to deal with the top companies in the industry, with first options on all the latest gadgets and gizmos. But really, only the latter of that matters to Gus. He doesn’t need the freebies.
“If tomorrow, I paid for everything,” he continues, “I’d still go to every show regardless.”
All of the perks are great, and Gus won’t disagree with that. But the winning element for him is the relationships he can build with his vendors.
“Half of these vendors have become my best friend. We’ve developed such a strong relationship. We constantly talk. They call me, tell me about new products and whatnot . . . versus, when I see vendors at other shows, I get five minutes out of them and I’m done.”
This is all by design; a natural outcome of the system Mike and his team have created.
“At SSE, I’ll have a meeting, place an order, then go to lunch, where I’ll end up eating next to the same guy I just met with. We’re sitting down at the lunch table and we’re still talking about products . . . I’ll end up adding more stuff to my order. It’s that closeness.”
“Gus hit the nail on the head,” Mike interjects. “The whole idea behind our shows is building those lasting business and personal relationships. Also, the fact that you can feel out hot new products as a buyer that might not be seen at the booth shows . . . that’s because a lot of these vendors will unveil their new items at our show first since they don’t have to worry about getting ripped off.”
“It’s not like a show to me,” Gus adds. “It’s like starting a company. We’ve been in business for years and we have 100 stores, but it’s like these guys are helping me open my first location.”
It’s also about the quality of the vendors. “One big thing I love about going to SSE,” Gus continues, “over the past five years that I’ve been attending, I’ve never once been burned by an exhibitor there. Never. Mike really brings in the right people.”
“We spend a lot of time vetting our attendees, both exhibitors and buyers, Mike confirms. “I’ve been fortunate enough to be in the smoking arena for damn-near 25 years now. I know the key players out there and I’m grateful and thankful to be in that position . . . We at the SSE group, we go the extra mile for our attendees. If Gus, or any of our buyers ever ran into an issue, we would reach out to the exhibitors and try to get that resolved for them. And vice versa. It’s just one of the services we provide. We want everyone to be successful at our shows. That’s my whole job; to make sure everyone is successful.”
Gus jumps back in. “Maybe it’s just me; I’m a friendly guy with people. I believe in loyalty. I’ve gotten nothing but loyalty from Mike’s Vendors.”
All of this, however, isn’t to take away from the perks. You’ve heard the hype; SSE provides a week of luxury at a resort hotel with kickass food and a relaxing atmosphere. Gus confirms that it’s not just hype. It’s reality.
“The food is great. The show is beautifully organized. You’re well taken care of. I mean, how many shows do you go to where breakfast, lunch and dinner are served to you and there’s the chance of winning prizes?” That atmosphere also extends to the meetings. “I walk into the room and everyone’s got something to drink,” he says. “You’re sitting on a couch and your feet are up. You’re not standing, it’s only you and they’re only helping you.”
The formula seems to be working. SSE is expanding operations faster than you can light up your pre-roll. They are now doing 30 shows a year, with forays into peripheral industries including CBD, vaping, dispensaries and much more, as well as adding new regional shows for the buyers that have a harder time getting away. They’ve also added the Power Hour to the regimen, wherein they bring in extra buyers for a more conventional, yet still intimate experience. If you’re a buyer with the purchase power or a manufacturer with the volume these buyers need, trying out SSE is practically a no-brainer.