Trade Shows…Your Worst Nightmare

Just got back from a trade show in Austin, TX for the Information Technology Alliance (ITA). The ITA is an industry group that brings together a bunch of IT, software, and accounting folks in one place to exchange ideas, learn, make connections, eat, and drink.   It’s also a place where you are confronted by your worst nightmare…people just like you.  This is never a pleasant situation.

When you’re at home, you’re pretty much the smartest person in the room. Not so much at the trade show. When you’re at home, you think you have unique, ground breaking ideas. At the trade show…yeah…everyone’s doing that.  When you’re at home, you think you’re a snazzy dresser. And then you see other people dressed just like you.

At trade shows, you had better be able to describe who you are and what you do in three sentences or less. Preferably less. And yet, you should expect other people to describe who they are and what they do in the time it would take a tortoise to cover an entire football field. I don’t know why that is, but trust me, it’s how it is. Meet someone new from Tennessee at the cocktail party? Make sure you’re wearing comfortable shoes and don’t plan on going anywhere for a while.

Learning more about your competitors at trade shows is unnerving as well. “Crap…they’re actually not evil people. They’re just like me! How can I keep manufacturing the hate and loathing for them if they’re just like me? Is that a form of self-loathing?” You go back and forth in your mind “I hate him. But wait! He’s a nice guy. He’s got kids just like me. Stop it! Hate him! But he’s struggling with hiring a new salesperson also. Why is he telling me this? Is it a devious plan? Hate him! Buy the guy a drink. He really had a rough week. No! Stop! Hate him!” and on and on. I honestly thought my head was going to explode.

And then you meet the guy that’s got it all going on. Sales? Up Up Up. Costs? Down. Down. Down. Hiring? No problem. New customers? “Swamped with em, man. We can’t keep up.” Processes and procedures in place? “Yes…we implemented the Wambeezee Management & Operational System last year, and woo doggy we’ve been operating at a fever pitch since then. Oh, you don’t know Wambeezee? You’ve got to try it…it’s the best.” Uh huh. When do the, uh, drinks get here?

I have to share one of my tricks, though. One of the nights there was a dinner and drinks event up on the top floor of the hotel. I didn’t really recognize anyone for a little while, so instead of eating at a table by myself, I took my food up to the bar and ate with the bartender. Well, I didn’t ACTUALLY eat with the bartender. I ate, and she served drinks and watched me eat. It’s almost the same thing. Anyway, the best part of this is that the bartender gives you the lowdown on all the people in the room, so you come away with serious information. And we all know that information is king. “That guy just split with his wife. Her…see her…the one with the short skirt…yep…she’s had five gin and tonics already because there are layoffs at their company…the guy over there…he just quit his company but NOBODY KNOWS…”. Seriously, I was just bursting….

Did you ever have a vendor stalk you on the phone to get you to buy something? Seems like they call a dozen times a day. You avoid the call the first eleven times, but on the 12th, they get you. You keep coming up with reasons why you can’t buy their stuff. You don’t even know the reasons you’re giving, you’re just bobbing and weaving and ducking and trying to get off the phone. Be prepared…THAT GUY is at the trade show too. And he remembers every excuse you ever gave. “Hey buddy…how you doing?” (you’re now “Buddy” because he doesn’t remember your first name and can’t take the time to read your name tag). “Is your mom out of the hospital?” Huh…what? “I was really rooting for your daughter to get into Harvard after that trip you took.” Uh…yeah…Harvard…right (point of clarification — I don’t even have a daughter). “So…when can we get together and really spend some time so we can get you setup with our thingamajigee?” Well…we’ve already got 152 thingamajigees, and I’m not sure we need another one. “You don’t have any thingamajigeees like ours.” Uh huh. Excuse me, I’ve got to get back to talking with my COMPETITOR.

It’s not all bad, though. You get to meet people from parts of the country where it was previously unimaginable that you would meet a person who was cool. Really? There are awesome people from Minnesota? How does THAT happen?!!!? The only things I knew about Minnesota before the show were that the Twins played baseball there indoors, it’s freezing cold 11 months out of the year, Prince lives there, and oh yeah I think some Vikings settled there in the 1800s. It was going to be part of Canada, but for some reason our government fought for it. And I think Minnesota is an old Native American term that means “butt cold”, but don’t quote me on that.

In all seriousness, the ITA put on a great show that was a completely worthwhile experience. Big time kudos to the entire leadership of the organization, and everyone who contributed. It was clearly a lot of work, and no doubt a lot of effort went into making it happen. We all learned a ton about the industry and improving our businesses. No way that kind of learning and growth happens over the year without an event like this. I just wish I didn’t have to look in the mirror so much. Next time I swear I’m going to dress better.