Trade shows

Paul Epp
Paul Epp

Why we bother

I’ve begun to wonder how many hours I’ve spent walking the aisles of trade shows. I know it will be a big number. I started as a student and then eagerly continued on as a young professional. Eventually, I was one of the exhibitors too, and then I really got to know them. Now I just arrive with my pre-printed pass slung around my neck and a desire to be efficient.

I like to be methodical and thorough: do I start on the right, or the left? Usually, the right. Then aisle-by-aisle, with eyes wide open, swiveling, hoping to be hooked by something special, but usually I’m not. I’m quick to mutter my good will to the eager sales people, but often without even breaking my stride. Most of my trade show visits are within “my” industry of furniture and design and woodworking. So I’m likely to meet compatriots and former students, whether I’m in Toronto, Cologne, Guangzhou or Chicago. I enjoy that and feel rewarded by the human contact and good will.

I’ve sometimes wondered, though, why we bother. And it is a lot of bother, and expense. I mean that it is especially for the exhibitors. All the frantic preparation, the logistics, the travel, the installation. Even finding a vacant hotel room. Then there is the security and facility management to be negotiated. The threats sidestepped and regulations fulfilled. How about the missing screwdriver? The broken light bulbs? The broken furniture?  There is a very long list of things that can go wrong and we can be sure that some of them will.

It has always been perversely reassuring to see that the troubles befall everyone, regardless of economic might. Even the biggest companies are sweating in the home stretch, somewhat desperate and frantic. But then, it’s show-time. Magically, everything is polished and bright. Everyone is cleaned up and cheerful. We have all had a good year and have a pocketful of contracts. Or at least that’s the story for the day. Maybe, we even manage to believe it for the duration of the event, when it might not be completely so.

Why we do it

We assemble, industry by industry, to show off and to verify and celebrate our survival. We trumpet our accomplishments and ambitions. We meet old friends and thump each other on the back. Loud good-wishes are exchanged. A bit of bragging might ensue. Bonhomie!

There are earlier precedents that point us toward the experience: county fairs, circuses, even evangelical revivals. All of these had in common the opportunity for a community to assemble, with a positive focus for an event that interrupted the jaded rhythmus of a working or school-going life. Trade shows are not so different. They are a chance for an industry to celebrate itself and to get out of the shop and office for a short while. Perhaps even a touch of carnival, with its suspension of some of the rules …. One can always catch up on sleep next week, and hangovers don’t last forever.

Kick the tires

More practically, it’s a chance to communicate. Business needs to do this, but all options seem to be imperfect. With trade shows, at least, you actually talk to people, looking them in the eye and probing them for insights. More and more information collecting is happening on the internet, but the critical flaw there is the lack of tangibility. Trade shows mitigate this, so in some ways they are becoming more important than ever. You can’t kick the tire unless it is in front of you.

Design plays a huge role in this. First of all, design is one of the principal tools for market differentiation and in our crowded market places, this is critical. All of the marketing materials need to be designed and that’s a big job by itself. The trade show presence itself also needs to be designed. Here’s a note to design students looking for work: trade shows are voracious consumers of design skills.

Eventually, we all end up back at home or the office, with a fist full of business cards and a stack of brochures. These may end up being useful, but a lot of the benefits are less obvious. We have absorbed useful information, whether we are purveyors or consumers. We are in a better position to engage with our industry in an effective way. And we feel better about doing what we do. See you next year!

Paul Epp is professor at OCAD University and chair of its Industrial Design Department.


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