Martha Donato: Cultivating Community Through Creativity

Martha Donato is the guest for this episode of the Skift Meetings Podcast

Skift Take

Martha Donato, founder and President of MAD Event Management, has been orchestrating events and conferences for nearly three decades. Community, collaboration, and connection are the focal points of all she does.

Martha Donato, founder and president of MAD Event Management, a full-service event planning and management company, found the events industry through serendipity. In the 1990s, while working for a publishing company in New York City, the owner bought a distressed trade show and tasked Donato with turning it around. 

“To say it was overwhelming would be a complete understatement. I was in my hotel room the first night, sobbing my eyes out, completely overwhelmed. But I came back the next day, and I was like, I really like this,” says Donato. “We ran that show for two years just as a test. Then, we started on an expansion plan and started building out these shows throughout the country. It took me a good three or four years before I felt like I had a handle on what I was trying to create.”

Today, Long Beach Comic Con, Long Beach Comic Expo, New Jersey Comic Expo, UAS Drone Disaster Response Conference, the Sustainable Events Summit at the Javits Center, and Thriv, a consumer show in Atlantic City geared for Boomers and Gen Xers, are among the shows she has launched.

A champion of women’s leadership in the exhibitions industry, Donato is co-founder and the first president of the Women in Exhibitions (WIE) Network North American Chapter. She currently serves as the immediate past president of the North American Chapter and serves on the International Board of WIE.

In December, she also became the regional director for the newly formed North American chapter of UFI.

Putting Attendees First 

The critical piece of advice she received during that time. “Don’t overthink it.” She built the show for the magazine’s readers, and it worked. “If you can tap into the why are people there, what’s making them get up and go out to a show, then you have something,” she says.

Donato started MAD Event Management in 2008, and her lead point person at the Long Beach Convention Center, Ellen Schwartz, offered her dates to produce a show there. “She gave me my big break,” says Donato. On October 3, 2009, she launched Long Beach Comic-Con. 

Paying Her Dues 

In 2011, she started working with Crain Communications. She demonstrated prowess working on a Crain trade show called RIMS and was offered a full-time job. She accepted and ran MAD Event Management at night, with Crain’s permission. The time zone difference worked to her advantage, and she focused on Crain’s responsibilities during the day and MAD at night. After three years, she left Crain Communications to concentrate on her Long Beach show as the trajectory became very strong. A local general contractor she used for her East Coast shows was Metropolitan Expositions. She didn’t realize Marty Glynn, an owner, was her neighbor in Warwick, NY. 

“We realized there was enough connective tissue between what I do and what he does that we should partner. So, we became business partners in 2014, which helped me amplify the growth of Long Beach Comic Con.”

Industry Advocate 

Every so often, Donato is asked if she enjoys planning weddings. There are still some who need help understanding the meetings and events industry and the fact that Donato runs business events all over the world. She ensured her three daughters and their friends understood her role as she would bring them to shows she managed whenever possible. She proudly states that her daughter’s best friend worked at MAD and then went on to Informa. Still, this misunderstanding is one of the industry’s biggest obstacles. 

Donato says the industry has a great deal of work to do regarding sustainability. She adds that single-use plastics, badges, badge holders, carpets, and booths that get town down and thrown away must be updated. 

Other focuses are DE&I and attracting talent. “Many people in our industry are aging, and we’re not bringing in enough new people at the high school and college level to meet that demand,” she says.