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The tradeshow industry will always be here

When I started in this business, the old timers told me my job wouldn’t last another five years. They said if I was smart, I’d find a job with a more secure future. Well, that was 36 years ago.

Back then, we lived in a totally different world. Computers occupied entire floors and were operated by geeky guys in white lab coats. We just left Vietnam the year before, and people were livid because the price of gas reached an astonishing 60 cents a gallon.

Gerald Ford was President, and two guys in California were tinkering with electronics in their parent’s garage and started the company that would eventually become the most valuable U.S. corporation: Apple Computers.

The tradeshow business was much smaller in the mid ‘70s than it is today. Here in Chicago, there was one main building: McCormick Place East, and it seemed enormous when I first walked in. Today, it’s the smallest of the buildings, and seems tiny in comparison to the buildings that came later. The success of that first building made the existence of rest of them possible, but it seems small and an aging vestige of Chicago’s history in the tradeshow business.

During the ‘80s and ‘90s, the industry grew to unimaginable heights, and I was fortunate to have front row seat to one the most impressive economic expansions in U.S. history. I don’t think anybody could have accurately predicted the explosive growth that happened during my working career. If they had made such a prediction, they would have been the object of ridicule.

The tradeshow business has been very good to me. I’d like to think I had powers of incredible foresight in choosing this as a career, but I guess I’m just the beneficiary of dumb luck. The tradeshow business has developed into a great place for middle class people to make a decent income, and I hope it remains that way. Lately, the economic downturn and hubris on the part of every segment of the industry has put this future in doubt for many, but the robust nature of the industry will remain.

Truisms tend to come and go. I remember during the dot com boom of the ‘90s, arrogant 20-somethings tried to convince me that tradeshows were doomed to extinction because everybody would buy everything on the internet. They concluded tradeshows were unnecessary, and I was foolish for remaining a part of obsolete industry. I can’t tell you how many of these same people asked me for jobs when the dot com mirage disappeared as fast as it appeared.

The tradeshow business will always be here. It’s been around since biblical times and will be flourishing long after we are all gone. I just hope the kids starting out now will be fortunate enough to have as long and lucrative career in this business as I’ve had.

When I started in this business, we were imbued with a sense of gratitude for those who came before us because we realized the good wages and working conditions of today are the result of the hard work and sacrifice of the past. I’m not convinced the younger workers have this same appreciation of history and gratitude for the good wages and benefits they enjoy. I just hope they secure the economic well being for the next generation during their working careers, so the generation after them has it as good as they do.

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