An inventory of the most common convention pitfalls and how you can avoid them
by Jessica Patterson
Illustration by Edward McGowan
In the absence of Mob muscle, you’re unlikely to find anyone at your next convention or trade show who’s willing to volunteer a story about their most embarrassing experience. Whether it’s the year that their exhibit went up in flames or the one in which it didn’t arrive at all, or the time they lost their job because of inappropriate behaviour at a conference, these are stories that are destined to be left untold.
Sometimes, though, it’s best to learn from other people’s mistakes. That’s particularly true when it comes to planning for a convention or trade show, where Murphy’s Law – anything that can go wrong, will go wrong – lies in wait from the time you show up until the moment you leave. Candace Adams, an Ohio-based exhibit management consultant and 20-year veteran of the trade and convention show circuit, has had more than her share of encounters with Mr. Murphy. “All sorts of things can go wrong, regardless of your best planning,” she says.
She’d know, too. At Adams’ first show, her exhibit came packaged like an Ikea return – 356 pieces and no directions. The halogen lighting in the booth then lit the product on fire. After that, the company president came by for a visit and fired the booth girl because she was inappropriately dressed and put Adams in charge of product she didn’t know anything about. And to top it all off, Adams bought Chinese food for lunch for an important journalist, only to have him experience a full-blown MSG attack. He went into shock and had to be rushed to hospital. “The first experience was my worst experience because there was so much I didn’t know,” Adams says. “I screwed up everything I possibly could have.”
These days, Adams knows how to keep Mr. Murphy in check, and makes a living telling others how to do the same. Her advice? First and foremost, have a plan. Educate yourself on what’s expected at the convention, from what’s allowed regarding trade show exhibit structure to floor plans and emergency contact numbers.
Desmond Belcastro, a project manager at the Granite Guys in Calgary, has been to six conventions in the last two years in order to run trade show booths for his company. As a result of that experience, he is a believer in the importance of being organized. “If you know you’re going to need a forklift, sort it out beforehand,” he says, remembering his most recent minor disaster. “The nightmare came when we had to deal with [short distance delivery charges] and the company who did the delivery on the floor,” Belcastro says. “We told them we needed to use their forklift to move the pieces, but they said every lift was $250.” The fee was actually a flat rate of $250, but by the time Belcastro got a definitive answer from the show manager, five hours had been wasted.
Planning ahead is important, but so too is being prepared for the possibility that your plan might fail, Adams says. If the original plan doesn’t work out, have a Plan B, and possibly Plans C through F as well. At conventions, technology will fail and displays will go missing. There can be fires in trade show booths, it could be raining in your session room or your neighbouring exhibitor could give you a violent case of the flu. These things can happen, but if you’re prepared, you can prevent them from becoming full-blown disasters. “You have to think on your feet,” Adams says. “It’s amazing when your back’s against the wall what you come up with.”
Return to Vendor
You’re sure you sent your convention materials to the right address and the right city, but the guy on the other end of the telephone insists that they’re sitting in a warehouse somewhere in Arkansas. Worse still, they’re not about to send them to the right address any time soon.
Solution: Go Back to the Drawing Board
Adams once met a man at a convention a few years ago who suffered a similar fate. But rather than sulking about his missing supplies, he simply built a new exhibit from scratch. “He rented an easel, cardboard box, cut one side of the box and he made a grid, and he had people come up and sign the day they thought the exhibit would show up. He took a binder clip and a $100 bill, and said whoever came closest to guessing when his exhibit would arrive would get the $100.” In the end, he did more business than he ever had.
Acts of God
You’re about to leave for the airport, only to learn that an unexpected dump of snow, a fast-moving weather system or an erupting volcano is conspiring to keep you grounded. You’re stuck, and you don’t know when – or if – you’ll get to where you need to be.
The Solution: Stay Grounded
You can’t predict when hurricanes, earthquakes, erupting volcanoes and other so-called acts of God are going to happen but you can be prepared if one happens. Be prepared for the possibility that your flight, either inbound or outbound, might be delayed or even canceled. Explore the possibility of alternative transportation, if and where it’s feasible. And above all else, relax. If you’re in a pickle, chances are just about everyone else is too.
Acts of Man (And Woman)
In retrospect, you should never, ever have eaten that sandwich. Now, you’re doubled over in agony in your hotel room, and the thought of standing upright, never mind delivering a presentation, is almost unimaginable.
Solution: Think Ahead
Large conventions and meetings are about bringing people together, but they tend to bring their germs, viruses and other assorted ailments with them. Practise proactive personal hygiene, and avoid dubious culinary adventures like the midday shellfish buffet.
Blooming Wall Flower
The convention floor is a social space, but you’d rather send a text to a co-worker than introduce yourself to the person standing five feet away. That can be a problem, says Terry Pithers, a business etiquette expert and a partner along with his wife, Joanne Blake, in Edmonton-based consulting firm Style for Success.
Solution: Talk It Out
The art of small talk is dying, as anybody who’s recently tried to communicate with someone under 30 understands. In its place are technologically oriented habits like texting and tweeting, but doing this in a social situation isolates the texter and excludes others in the vicinity. Instead, Pithers suggests, put away the BlackBerry and adopt an open expression when you’re networking.
You’ve talked it out all weekend, and after some up-and-down negotiations you’re finally about to close the deal that will make the convention for you. A hand is presented, but you decide to treat it like some test of strength. You learn that breaking one of the bones in your potential business partner’s hand can be a deal breaker.
Solution: Be Forgettable
“You want to walk away remembering the person, not the fact they hurt you or that there was nothing there,” says Joanne Blake. When you shake hands, the bit of skin between your thumb and index finger should connect, with firm pressure all around, for a count of two. “If you make a very low pressure handshake, people will assume you’re not confident, or that you don’t have much business experience,” she says. “And if your handshake is overly firm, people will think you’re aggressive, overly compensating for something.”
You’ve decided to use the same old halogen lights at your booth and step away to grab a coffee. When you come back, your exhibit is getting all kinds of attention, but for all the wrong reasons. This wasn’t what you meant when you said you wanted to get people fired up.
Solution: Keep Your Cool
First and foremost, be prepared. Keep a fire extinguisher in your booth, and make sure whoever’s going to be working understands how to use it. Meanwhile, avoid using halogen lighting as it can create excess heat. LED lights work nearly as well, and are as much of a fire hazard as a glass of water.
You spent hours building the presentation of a lifetime. There’s just one problem: your computer isn’t willing to co-operate, either because it’s not compatible with the on-site operating system or because it simply picked the worst possible time to break down.
Solution: Call For Backup
Back up your electronic materials and presentations, in triplicate, on CD, on USB or flash drive and on a remote hard drive. Use software that can run on both Macs and PCs with few glitches. When technology fails and you’re left without a presentation, be prepared to give it anyway.
You’re dressed for a day on horseback or a night out at the clubs. But unless you’re at an agricultural convention or the annual general meeting of the exotic dancer’s association, neither of those looks will earn you any social credit.
Solution: Dress To Impress
In the absence of a clear dress code, Pithers thinks it’s best to err on the side of caution. “Being slightly overdressed isn’t an issue, since you can always take off a tie or remove a jacket. When you’re underdressed, it does affect your confidence and thus how much you enjoy that part of the conference.”
Sleepless in Stettler
You’re full of excitement, anticipation, dread or some combination thereof at what lies ahead. Combine this elevated emotional state with just a bit of alcohol and you end up with a convention experience defined by long nights and unpleasant mornings.
Solution: Bank It
Get some extra sleep, either during the convention or before you arrive. After all, interacting with people for hours on end can be exhausting enough, says Tara Whittaker, a Calgary photographer who attended her first big networking event in 2010 at the Bridal Fantasy Expo. “Be prepared for a very long day, or two,” she says. “It’s exhausting physically and exhausting mentally to be in conversation with people the entire day. Get a good night’s sleep.”