SARASOTA -- Businesses from all over Manatee and Sarasota counties met at the Robarts Arena on Wednesday for one of the area's largest business networking events.
More than 700 people attended Wednesday night's East Meets West Expo. The Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance and the Longboat Key Chamber of Commerce paired to organize the seventh annual event. Annette Sciolino-Gueli, owner of Sarasota-based Pro-Motion Notions, founded the event in 2009.
The East Meets West Expo grew from 75 businesses last year to more than 90 this year.
Executive director of Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance Heather Kasten didn't have final numbers but said the expo is their largest fundraising event of the year. The event's presenting sponsor Sandler Training supported the expo with "around a couple thousand," Kasten said.
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Many companies like SouthTech, an information technology consulting firm, made reservations early to obtain a coveted spot for their booth near the front.
"We wanted to be front row and in the center," said SouthTech representative Lauren Probst. SouthTech gave out chocolate covered marshmallows, or "clouds," to drive their message home about storing information on the cloud.
Linda Peterson, recruiter for HH Staffing, attended the event previously and said she knew they'd be back this year.
"We immediately signed up," Peterson said. "It's one of the best events of the year and it's great to see all of the businesses come out and support each other."
The expo also gives area business professionals the
opportunity to meet customers and fellow entrepreneurs they may not otherwise encounter.
"I'm excited to partner with the east because we're the west," said Gail Loefgren, president of the Longboat Key Chamber of Commerce. "You get to see totally different businesses and business partners get to meet businesses they didn't know existed. It creates partnerships."
Heather Kasten, executive director of the Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance said the expo creates a unique marketing opportunity.
"This show is a phenomenal, cost-effective way for business to get in front of community leaders and other businesses," Kasten said.
Baylee Rockers, closing supervisor at Jason's Deli in Lakewood Ranch, said the event was great for the deli based on networking alone. He was one of more than 10 restaurants at the expo.
"A lot of people don't know about us because we're up in the newer Lakewood Ranch area," Rockers said.
Business relationships in the county and between the two counties encourage people to move to the area and encourages them to consider spending the entire year on the Gulf Coast instead of only spending winters in Florida, said community ambassador for Schroeder-Manatee Ranch Don Mihalik.
"It's a great show of growth for Sarasota and Manatee," Mihalik said.
"It's not just people waiting for season anymore and that stabilizes the economy. We all know somebody and networking helps us tell each other what's happening."
Janelle O'Dea, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow her on Twitter@jayohday.