When you describe it to almost any sane human beings, they think you are out of your mind. You get a blank stare or the look that questions your planetary heritage. I know this to be true. I am still trying to figure out how to describe what I do for people who have never heard of a tradeshow.
What is it about this tradeshow industry that can make otherwise mostly rational people travel to another city to work in a freezing cold (or sweltering) convention center under intense deadline pressure for up to 24 hours per day, seven days a week for three consecutive weeks? What is it that convinces these same people that sleep is optional, nutrition is for wimps and all the rest of the world will just have to wait until this show opens?
There have been numerous times in the last 30-something years where I have been offered a position (or thought about changing to a position) outside the tradeshow industry. Yet, every time I have considered it, and weighed it against what I find enjoyable about this industry, I have turned the opportunity down. I have tried to quantify and clarify what it is that keeps a person doing this. Other than the obvious references to mental stability (or lack thereof), here’s my list of why I think we love this business:
By variety, I mean variety in the places you work, the people you work with, the types of projects you work on and the time of day you do it. In one way or another, there is a lot of diversity in this business. If you work in the same venue all the time (i.e. McCormick Place), chances are you are working on different exhibits or events all the time. Each one is different, with its own set of challenges. If you work on the same exhibit all the time, you are most likely setting it up in different cities, with different people on your crew each time you go out.
Every program, every client and every venue is different. There are different challenges and demands depending on where you are and who you are working with. It’s definitely not a predictable 8-5 job.
My attraction to this variety probably goes back being accused of being a “jack of all trades, master of none.” In the tradeshow environment, you have to be able to do a lot of different things well, but perhaps not “mastering” any one thing. As a friend pointed out so aptly to me recently, “But you are a master of one thing –you are a master at being a ‘jack of all trades’.” Thanks, I feel better now…
There is a lot of creativity in this business and a variety of uses for that creativity. From exhibit design to logistics planning to managing programs, you have an opportunity to be creative in getting the job done. You are part of creating something, even if it is not permanent. You start with an empty space and create an experience for the attendee, combining architecture and marketing. You get to see a lot of different approaches to the same objective: Trying to get the attention of the attendee to tell your story.
It’s also about creativity on the show floor – that ability to avert total disaster with the use of duct tape, Velcro and wire ties. And trying to cut any of the above without that utility knife that was confiscated at the airport. Hey…that may be why my house key doesn’t work anymore.
I just think other businesses are not as exciting as this one. And I think that brings a lot of interesting people to our industry. The people you work with and meet along the way in all parts of the country and the world – where else can you have so many friends in so many places? Where else in the span of several hours can you find yourself trying to understand the vulgar ranting of a guy on a forklift and the lofty strategic corporate-speak of the CEO of your best client company?
It’s a high-pressure business where the closer you get to the show time, the more critical each decision is and the quality of the service you provide becomes. The real fun is working with a driven team to accomplish the impossible together, and then celebrating with your team upon accomplishing it.
It takes a certain kind of person to work the long hours and variety of locations under tremendous pressure to meet deadlines. You have to love it or leave it. Once you’re in it, it takes high energy, the ability to work under pressure, think on your feet, be flexible with your schedule and have a passion for serving your customer. It takes a driven, passionate personality to stick with this industry, and everything that can happen to you.
I think that one – perhaps overused – word best describes why we stick to this: passion. It’s the passion to delight our clients, to hear them say “I never thought you guys could do this!” It’s the passion to constantly find a way to get it done. And it’s the passion for the friends we have all over this business. It continues to amaze me at what my team can accomplish when we call on our friends for assistance when we are in a tight spot. That goes both ways – to the satisfaction we get from being able to return the favor.
So how do you describe what you do for new acquaintances? “It’s like show business without all of the weirdoes” (well, OK, maybe a few of them…). “It’s like building a 5,000 square-foot home in four days…and taking it back down again three days later.” “What, you think they build these huge convention centers so they can have a boat show once a year?” OK, maybe we are from another planet…
See you on the show floor…
Jim Obermeyer has been in the tradeshow industry over 30 years, both as a corporate tradeshow manager and exhibit house executive. He is a partner in the tradeshow and event marketing firm Reveal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.