NOT THEIR FIRST RODEO: The Heart of Oklahoma Expo Center in Shawnee has a 5,000-seat rodeo arena, where music is sometimes staged, along with traditional roping and riding. (Courtesy venue)
Shawnee, Oklahoma, Expo Center is home on the range
Frank Abbott, a 30-year-industry veteran, likes to call the Heart of Oklahoma Expo Center in Shawnee the kind of facility that’s “the bread and butter” of the venues business.
Trade shows? He’s got herds of ’em, but in this neck of the plains, the main attractions are pigs, sheep, dogs, horses and RVs.
He’s also got the occasional tornado to contend with and when one of those sweeps through, the facility becomes a staging area for a military-grade contingent of utility crews and 1,200 line trucks.
“I just got finished up with a two-day meeting with FEMA. They just left,” he said. “We got a tornado here, April 19th. The federal agency continues to provide relief to those affected, especially those uninsured or underinsured, Abbott said.
“The way tornadoes work is, of course, you have a tornado and the insurance company comes out and says, ‘Well, we got $80 million for the damage, and we’ll give you $5 million. So you fight with the insurance company and then once you end up with a settlement, let’s say 25%, the other 75% comes from, FEMA. We have well over $2 million in damage, and FEMA is going to help out a lot. I lost roofs on barns and all kinds of things.”
The good news? No one was killed.
In the last year, the Expo Center did 329 events ranging from small affairs to massive ag shows.
One of the big ones is the International Finals Youth Rodeo each July, one of the largest youth rodeos in the U.S.
“It’s a huge event,” Abbott said. “We have 800 RV spots here and we are always sold out.”
Another big event is the Bonus Race World Finals, a barrel-racing extravaganza of prize money that takes place each June.
“It’s an 11-day event,” Abbott said. “Great folks to work with.”
“They rent five acres of barns. They do 1,000 horse stalls. They also have a trade show and they do night functions,” he said. “They’ll have a dance one night, next night they have a comedian.”
The OVG360-run building provides concessions and hospitality in-house.
An annual goat show that draws nannies and billies from 27 states, features a finals competition with the best breeds in the West represented. The lesser goats are out at that point.
“It’s the top in the breed, so it’s not a huge number of fans because it’s not a regional finals,” Abbott said. “It’s a final so all the low-hanging fruit have all been disqualified.”
The quarterly Shawnee Horse Sale features work horses ranging in cost from $70 to $100,000.
“Facilities like ours are the bread and butter of the industry, smaller to mid-sized facilities,” he said.
The event schedule includes RV rallies, including the Family Motor Coach Association, where million-dollar motor coaches are among the 500 club participants who show up each year.
“They’ll come out to the property for four or five days,” Abbott said. ”It’s a club. They see each other, they all know each other. It’s a family-to-family deal, and they rent the convention center and they do seminars. Our vendors sell stuff for your motor coach or RV.”
The center does six to eight RV rallies each year. The event mix also includes dog shows as well as summertime concerts.
“We had Ted Nugent two months ago,” Abbott said. “I have a big outdoor rodeo arena that seats 5,000 people. We do concerts and of course we do big monster truck shows, things like that. We’re working on a motocross deal for 2025.”
Abbott says customer service is the mantra that permeates the facility.
“I’ve been doing this for 30-plus years and I think a lot of times you’ll see a larger facility and they just get complacent. They’re not the hungry kid anymore,” he said. “We have to be. Let’s face it, there’s facilities all over and we all have the same thing. We all have a nice deal, but I can do better customer service than that other place. That’s what we pride ourselves on and we sell the Heart of Oklahoma on, our customer service.”
That philosophy extends to every customer coming to the venue, Abbott says.
“For the last few days, I’ve had a sewer convention, believe it or not,” he said. “We’re doing breakfast and lunch for 450 people and they’re just raving about our customer service, the cleanliness of our bathrooms. Well, that gets return business.”