Few deer hunters recognize Glenn Helgeland even when standing beside him at one of the famous Deer & Turkey Expos he has run the past 30 years, mostly in the Upper Midwest.
These days, of course, the events are referred to as Field & Stream Deer & Turkey Expos, because Helgeland sold his popular deer shows in December 2011 to the Bonnier Corporation, the parent company of Field & Stream and Outdoor Life magazines. As part of the sale, Helgeland, 71, of Mequon, Wisconsin, continues to produce these events, which are held each winter and spring in Madison, Wisconsin; Louisville, Kentucky; Dimondale, Michigan; Springfield, Illinois; and Columbus, Ohio.
Helgeland has no problem with the fact most hunters attending the shows don’t know his name or what he looks like. After all, the Deer & Turkey Expo has never been about making himself—or anyone—famous. The old journalist in him believes people attend the expos for information, and to see deer mounts, talk about deer and turkeys, and buy hunting gear they won’t find online or in stores.
“People don’t come here for autographs,” Helgeland said in April while weaving through crowded aisles at Madison’s Alliant Energy Center. “I’d say 90 percent of them want to learn better ways to hunt big bucks or turkeys where they hunt. They aren’t interested in going somewhere else to hunt. They want to learn what works where they hunt.”
Therefore, Helgeland has always worked hard to give his customers what they want. When he and his wife, Judy, ran these shows from 1985 to 2011 as part of their Target Communications company. They just viewed themselves as two members of a five-person team that handled every aspect of each Expo.
Whether it was a parking snafu outside, disputed booth space on the Expo floor, burnt-out projector bulbs in seminar rooms, or capacity crowds threatening to exceed a room’s legal limits, Helgeland hustled over to solve the problem. That left little time for socializing before, during, or after each show.
Then again, that’s what you expect from a man who still describes himself as a “Wisconsin farm boy,” even though he hasn’t lived that lifestyle since the early 1960s. Helgeland grew up hunting deer on his parents’ farm in Barron County, and graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1965 with a double major in agricultural journalism and the “biological aspects of conservation.”
After graduation and a military rejection—“Uncle Sam didn’t want me”—Helgeland worked awhile for the Winona Daily News in Minnesota and then took a job in Chicago “promoting fish” for the US Department of Interior. When the farm boy decided he needed to live closer to home in 1968, he moved to Mequon, Wisconsin, to work at National Wildlife magazine.
After 18 months, the parent company reorganized into two companies, and one bought Archery World magazine and brought it to Milwaukee. At age 27, Helgeland became its editor.
In 1976, the company launched Archery Business magazine, and he became its founding editor. He rose to associate publisher for both titles before leaving in 1980 to run his own company, Target Communications, with his wife. Besides publishing and selling outdoor books, Helgeland also wrote magazine articles for American Hunter, North American Hunter, Bowhunting World, and the now defunct Fins & Feathers.
Helgeland corrects anyone who suggests he created the Wisconsin Deer Expo, which was first held in Neenah in 1984. “Nope,” he says. “That credit goes to the Wisconsin Taxidermists Association (WTA). I was just a speaker and exhibitor at the first one.”
When the WTA went looking for someone to produce its 1985 expo, Helgeland applied. He had never produced a show before, but he had run the Pope and Young Club’s biannual banquet in Milwaukee. He also knew something about sales and promotions, and he had attended industry trade shows for 14 years.
The Wisconsin Expo, held annually during the first or second weekend of April in Madison, took off in its new location and outgrew the Dane County Coliseum by the late 1990s. It peaked in 2001 and 2002 after moving to the Alliant Energy Center, featuring more than 600 exhibitors and drawing nearly 30,000 hunters and their families.
Since then, that show’s three-day crowds have averaged 25,000, with 93 percent coming from Wisconsin. Hunters come from nearly every county each year, not just the Madison area, driving their pickups and SUVs from Milwaukee, Green Bay, the Fox River Valley, the Chippewa Valley, and the Wisconsin River corridor.
In fact, Helgeland said the Wisconsin show regularly draws hunters from 26 states, with northern Illinois sending about 4.5 percent of the attendees. “It’s amazing how far people will drive, but deer hunting isn’t just recreation; it’s a passion bordering on religion,” he said. “We get our best numbers when the weather’s cold and the pavement’s dry. Warm, sunny weather? No sir. That hurts attendance. Attendance is always best the first weekend of April. If we have to hold it the second weekend, it cuts attendance by 2,000.”
The Wisconsin Expo has always been Helgeland’s most successful show, but the series has also enjoyed long runs in Ohio, Illinois, and Michigan, which drew 23,200, 10,600, and 9,235 this year, respectively. Its inaugural show in Louisville, Kentucky, attracted 5,300.
Not every Expo makes the cut, however. Helgeland’s show in Nashville died after 17 years, and Expos in Marquette, Michigan; Owatonna, Minnesota; Bismarck, North Dakota; Davenport, Iowa; Huntsville, Alabama; and the Poconos and Valley Forge in Pennsylvania folded faster.
He regrets none of the failures. “Every city is different, and you never know till you try,” he said with a shrug. “I could tell you stories all day about each one, but we tried our best every time.”
He also has no seller’s remorse. Three years after negotiating the Expo series sale to the Bonnier, Helgeland said he enjoys the producer’s role.
“It’s definitely less stressful than when I owned it,” he said. “Now I even have time to visit with people on the floor, and even smile. That never used to happen.”
Images by Patrick Durkin