Walmart’s Associates Week and Shareholders Celebration dedicates almost a full day to an outrageous outdoor supplier expo, which happens in a huge open field a few miles from the University of Arkansas campus, site of the event’s meetings and attendees’ dorm accommodations. Endless waves of shuttle buses drop off nearly 6,500 associates at the edge of what resembles a Walmart-themed county fair: Long grassy avenues flanked by large tents and mobile exhibit trucks from Walmart’s biggest vendors. There are even amusement rides and a petting zoo, plus Sam Walton’s 1979 pickup truck for employees to stand alongside for photos.
A stroll down one avenue finds a half-size basketball court set up for people to try their hand at long jump shots to win sports apparel; even if they don’t make a shot, they still walk away with a shirt emblazoned with a logo from AND1, the athletic-wear company hosting the attraction. Just a few steps away is a tractor-trailer with its side cut away to reveal an entire row of gas and charcoal grills that are sizzling and smoking. The host: Johnsonville Sausages. “We want the associates to try our product if they have not before,” said one Johnsonville rep. “Maybe they become new customers or they tell the customers who come into their store about it.”
Down another row is the spa tent, where health- and beauty-product suppliers apply their wares on willing participants. Haircuts and massages are also available here. And then there’s the Red Bull tent where folks can learn different dances, then refresh themselves with a drink.
In the far corner of the expo is a 50-foot tower topped with a zipline that runs diagonally to the ground 250 feet away. Nearby is a tent featuring virtual reality stations that provide a 4D experience with motion, mist, and scents included. Once associates remove the headsets, they can wander over to the tricycle races that go around hay bales or watch local bands play popular songs from a concert stage.
For Walmart’s planning team, the biggest concern with the expo is the weather. First, there’s the rain contingency: A large indoor basketball complex run by the Arkansas Athletes Outreach is nearby and prepared to take in the thousands of associates for a few hours if need be. Next is the heat contingency: Shaded water stations, air-conditioned tents, and about a dozen paramedics are on the expo grounds to help associates who are overcome by the summer sun or who don’t feel well.
Group Dining: Spartan but Fun
Walmart’s event planners had to get creative with their location for associates’ meals. Next to the University of Arkansas’ Bud Walton Arena, which hosts Walmart’s opening-night concert, U.S. associate meeting, and shareholder celebration, is the Meadow Street parking garage. For the three days, the middle floors of the structure act as a meal-prep area and dining hall for three waves of up to 3,000 Walmart and Sam’s Club associates at a time.
But what’s enjoyable about dining inside a concrete multi-level garage? A lot, actually. Once the food and beverages are moved via police escort from the university’s kitchens into the garage for a buffet setup, attendees from each region around the world arrive in matching t-shirts and take turns at performing their unique cheers and dances. The friendly competition creates conversations across the long rows of dining tables, while cooling units set next to large fans on the perimeter keep the temperature comfortable.
“The dining experience is where a lot of bonding takes place with associates from around the world,” says Mark Henneberger, Walmart’s vice president of event services. “The energy we see there definitely carries over to the business events.”