Expo! Expo!

As a man's fancy turns to signage, where better to indulge it than the all-star game of trade shows?

Published December 14, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

As I've gotten older, my idea of The One Thing That Would Solve All My Problems has evolved. Where I once thought that, say, becoming a major-league second baseman or getting 10 quality minutes alone with Winona Ryder would Solve All My Problems, now I think that everything would be OK if only there were a marked improvement in the placement and clarity of signage in the world. Then I could focus on important world issues and personal development instead of constantly thinking, "Where's the damn freeway entrance?" or "Am I in the right line?"

This belief has led to a growing fascination with the design of display, for want of an actual term to describe what it is I'm fascinated with. How do you get people to go where you want them to go, or help them go where they want to go, or tell them what you want to tell them before they wander off? How do you communicate with the passing hordes?

And this fascination has led me to Expo! Expo! -- the annual exhibition of the International Association for Exhibition Management. In other words, this is the trade show for people who manage trade shows. That sounds all postmodern and layered with meaning, I suppose (question to ponder: What would Expo! Expo! Expo! be?), but what I'm interested in is the state of the art in the "Psst! Hey, buddy, check this out" business.

And this has in turn, and ironically, led me to a state of wandering hopelessly lost around McCormick Place, despairing of ever finding Expo! Expo! The temporary signs in the parking garage, undergoing renovation, were helpful in getting me inside the gargantuan lakeside conference center, but now I've been abandoned in a huge hallway, and I stare forlornly at overhead signs that say things like "E351" with an arrow. I'm mournfully studying a map of the complex when a kindly security guard rescues me and leads me to the show. I'm not alone in being lost. Gary Tufel, the IAEM's spokesman, would confess to me on the last day of the show that he was just beginning to understand the layout of the place. It would not be a complete waste of time to send a guard around to look for Jimmy Hoffa, who might just be trying to find a men's room.

I've been to a couple of trade shows in my life. The thing I find a little disconcerting about them is that they are filled with attractive, hearty people who are looking me straight in the eye. I'm kind of a mean-looking guy. It's not that I'm a nasty person, you understand. It's just that I fix a scowl on my face so people will think I'm a nasty person and leave me alone.

But I decide to go with it, lose the scowl, enjoy the show for what I believe it might be: a sort of all-star game of trade shows, where the folks who do this for a living show off for each other. (Though Expo! Expo! -- which is for trade show managers -- should not be confused with the similarly layered TS2, "The Trade Show for Trade Shows," which is for exhibitors.)

Get my attention, I say to the room. Show me a sign.

One way to get people's attention is to feed them. This is one of the good things about a trade show. You get free food. Well, you don't, because you have to pay to register (from $525 to $825 for this one, depending on whether you're an IAEM member and how far in advance you signed up). But I do because I'm with the media. And the media machine must be fed. Fair is fair, though, so in the interest of quid pro quo and keeping the wheels greased, not to imply anything by using the word grease, let me say that the deep-dish pizza I had was from Taylor Street and the gyro was from Greek Town.

"I mean, the food's fabulous. You don't see that at most trade shows," says Elaine Lee, manager of market and product development for Roadway Express trucking, by way of saying that Expo! Expo! is indeed a sort of trade show Pro Bowl. She ought to know. She says she goes to about 15 shows a year. "It's well organized, it's very clear where you're supposed to be and what you're supposed to be doing," she says.

As I move along, my attention is grabbed by a craps table and a slot machine, which is exactly what those things are supposed to do, grab my attention. They're in the booth of SCA, a Dallas company that provides "traffic-building promotions." Unfortunately, the gambling games and lottery-style scratcher cards don't seem to be doing their job at the moment, except on me. I note to Alicia Eberhardt, who's working the booth, that except for her and me, the booth is empty. "Aha-ha," she laughs, mirthlessly. "That's not nice."

She assures me the games do work, and I move on to two things that are very good at attracting attention: good-looking people and chocolate. I decide not to fight through the throng surrounding the Hershey, Pa., booth, which is of course stocked with Hershey's chocolate, which I happen to know from past experience is quite good. We journalists have to be expert at many things. I talk instead to Danielle Chevalier, who with her business partner, Shelly Justice, runs Convention Models and Talent, a talent agency for the spokesmodel set.

"How we feel we're different than other agencies is that our girls have product and service knowledge," she says, "so they're kind of an extension of a sales and marketing team, versus just being a pretty face."

Chevalier and Justice "were on the talent side for 15 years," Chevalier says, and they became frustrated with being, well, just pretty faces. "We were working a big trade show in Atlanta for a software company, and we were like, We want to know more about this product, so if someone comes up and asks us, yeah, we won't know everything but we want to know something and not sound like we're just stupid models."

Expo! Expo! is 6-month-old CMT's first show, but Chevalier and Justice obviously have extensive experience at these things as models. I ask her how Expo! Expo! stacks up. "This is great. They're really good at it."

Although CMT is in Atlanta, it has models in many different cities, so shows can hire locals. I ask Chevalier if she thinks I might have a future as convention talent. I'm really getting into the spirit of this whole communicating with people thing. I want to become effective signage, as it were. Chevalier looks me right in the eye, something few pretty women have ever bothered to do, and lies to me. "Absolutely," she says.

One thing that surprises me, and -- I won't lie -- disappoints me, about Expo! Expo! is the seeming lack of cattiness and disrespect among the exhibitors. I had figured that if this show is an all-star game, there ought to be some egos flying around. You call that a booth? Ha! What are you giving away there, Skippy, Hershey's miniatures? Ha! We're pouring tequila shots, baby.

I ask John Flaherty of the Providence-Warwick Convention and Visitors Bureau to sell me his city, the booth for which is festooned with toys made by Rhode Island's own Hasbro, including Twister, Yahtzee and Mr. Potato Head. He mentions several things that make Providence such a good place to hold a meeting or convention or trade show, including the fact that "we've moved rivers," which I gather implies that Providence is really willing to put forth some effort to get your business. I mean, I don't need a river moved, but I appreciate that if I did, Providence would do it for me.

I tell Flaherty that this is not what I hear from the people in the Boston booth just down the way. I say that just moments before, they'd been talking smack about the Big P.

"No, they weren't," he says. "We're good partners with Boston. We like our friends in Boston. We've actually gotten leads from them."

Despairing of finding any backbiting or nastiness, I tour the show floor, taking in the various ways that companies communicate, get attention, sell their products and services. Show Biz USA, which offers flat-rate drayage, dock to booth and back, is serving screwdrivers from behind a bar made entirely of ice. That gets my attention. CEO Michael P. Hogan Sr. explains to me as I try to dry off my notebook that Show Biz USA's flat rate is unique, but only fair. "It's real simple," he says. "We've eliminated all silliness. Because a forklift doesn't know how much your freight weighs. It picks it up. You could have a skid load of pillows or a skid load of machinery, and if it's not over 5,000 pounds, we just bring it to the booth the same way we would the pillows."

I walk away impressed with the idea that Show Biz USA is attempting to merge the concepts of free alcohol and silliness elimination.

Silliness, not the kind Hogan means but real silliness, has been in short supply since Sept. 11, especially in industries related to travel, which have taken a serious shot. Trade show attendance has suffered as the economy has slowed, especially since the attacks, which have made businesses and individuals wary about moving around unnecessarily.

"I'm not seeing as many booths as generally exhibit at this trade show," says Melody Lendaro of the Moscone Center in San Francisco. "But the attendance is right in the same area as it usually is."

IAEM president Steven Hacker pronounces the organization "very, very pleased" with the attendance, "given all of the circumstances." He says it's just about what IAEM had budgeted for before the terrorist attacks. According to Tufel, the spokesman, the audited attendance figure for the Dec. 4-6 meeting won't be available for a while, but as of the last morning of the show, it's 2,447, a number that includes booth personnel.

"The major impact that Sept. 11 has had on the exhibition industry is that it accelerated the business cycle that was already under way," Hacker says.

Several people have said to me that the exhibition industry is more or less recession-proof, since there's always some industry somewhere that's doing well. Hacker points out, for example, that health care shows are setting attendance records. But Hacker says that while he used to say the industry is recession-proof, he now believes it does suffer -- "for the most part attendance is either flat or down some" -- but that it's more resilient than other industries reliant on travel, because people still have to do business with each other.

As I continue my tour my attention is grabbed by a number of people doing business, trying to grab people's attention: a woman in an astronaut's jumpsuit in the Huntsville, Ala., booth; a woman who sticks an orange tulip sticker onto my media patch in the Holland booth; a man in the Valley Forge, Pa., booth who assures me that people happily visit there without worrying about freezing to death, which is what I think when I think of Valley Forge; and four Rockettes in sparkly Santa outfits, in the booth for Rosemont, Ill. They're performing their "Radio City Christmas Spectacular" all month at the Rosemont Theatre.

As much as leggy showgirls in sparkly outfits are capable of turning my head, what catches my eye are the massages being given out in the booth of U.S. Bodyworks, which provides sponsored service opportunities. Sales manager Wes Daniels explains that his company offers services such as shoeshines and massages at trade shows and conventions, all of which are sponsored, so it's free to the show and free to the visitor.

I hang around and ask him a whole bunch of questions, hoping he'll offer me a spot in one of the massage chairs. He's one of the few who doesn't buy the all-star game analogy for Expo! Expo!

"You know, you would think that it would be, I guess," he says as a couple of show attendees in massage chairs behind him moan in pleasure as their shoulders are rubbed. "But, you know, in some ways it's not. In some ways it's a regular old trade show. But the big thing is it does bring the people that make the decisions."

There's a sales manager from Minnesota purring behind him now.

"So that's probably the biggest thing about this," Daniels continues. "It's really a great group of attendees, as far as the decision-makers. You're really kind of getting to our main audience of who we want to talk to. The show itself, I mean, they've done a fine job, but it doesn't jump out as anything extraordinary, as far as I'm concerned."

As a consultant from Ohio makes little gurgling noises, I ask Daniels what show really does jump out. "NAMM," he says. "The National Association of Music Merchants. In that one, everyone really goes all out." NAMM meets in January in Anaheim and in July in Nashville. There will no doubt be jazz buyers reduced to puddles of ecstasy by the powerful but gentle hands of a sponsored U.S. Bodyworks masseur at those shows, but alas, nothing for this writer on the take in Chicago.

Failing to secure a massage, or even a shoeshine, I somehow manage to navigate the Brobdingnagian byways of McCormick Place and make my way outside to a huge balcony overlooking the lake. As I enjoy the unseasonably warm sunshine I notice a sign on the side of the building with an arrow pointing toward the horizonless water. "Lake Michigan," it says.

A masterpiece of informational signage.

By King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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