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Published May 31, 2011

Sometimes, in a weak moment,  I imagine getting back into the trade show business. Then I  remember the deaf sound man and come to my senses.  

Producing a trade show is a gamble under the best of circumstances.  You pump money, effort and ideas into the slot all year and then pull the handle.  The odds favor the house, but after all these years, I still miss the rush. Then I remember Peter Glen and the sound man who was hard of hearing .

Peter Glen may have been the most dynamic and inspiring keynote speaker we ever had at Interbike. He was definitely the most flamboyant. He bounded all over the stage preaching passion, commitment and creativity in retailing. He gave his all in every performance and he expected the same from everyone he worked with. He didn’t expect a sound engineer who couldn’t hear.  

To work in Atlantic City in those days, it helped to have an appreciation for irony and gallows humor. Peter Glen had neither. When I wandered into the Grand Ballroom to see how rehearsal was going, Peter Glen was standing center stage dressed in a spotted cow sport coat yelling at a wobbly figure up on the balcony. It was like bad amateur opera. Pointing at the man behind the console on the balcony, Peter Glen yelled that there was too much feedback. The old gent would cup his hand behind his ear and shrug his shoulders, and Peter Glen would wave his arms and yell even louder, creating more feedback. 

Fearing that our keynote speaker would rupture a vocal cord, I approached the stage and called a timeout. I had somebody bring Peter Glen a glass of water and got on the walkie talkie (this was before cell phones) to see if we could round up a sound man who could hear. I was told that the sound man had seniority and could not be replaced without risking a general walkout. Of course he had seniority...he was eighty-five years old. 

Knowing that the way around every union impasse was to spend more money, I suggested we might hire another sound man to “assist” the one with seniority. This idea was quickly approved by the foreman and another sound technician appeared next to the old gent at the console. “What seems to be the problem?” the new guy shouted in the old boy’s ear. “I don’t know,” he replied, gesturing toward Peter Glen in his cow suit,  “He keeps yelling about his feedbag.”

Resorting to the feedbag doesn’t always work, as I discovered the hard way during move-in for that same show. There was only one small freight elevator and a line of long-suffering exhibitors waiting to enter the hall. The mood of the crowd was turning mutinous. Then it started to rain. 

Hoping to relieve the tension, I went to the food concessionaire and told him to bill all food and beverage purchases to our master account. Then I announced over the P.A. system that the snack bars were open and everything was on the house. A rumble of approval echoed throughout the hall. Unfortunately, it wasn’t from the exhibitors. The union laborers dropped everything and stormed the snack bars. All work ceased for more than an hour. By the time the more polite and patient exhibitors got to the snack counter, all that remained were stale pretzels and lukewarm bottled water.

To say that exhibitors were more patient and polite than union workers may seem like faint praise, but I don’t mean it that way.  Nor do I mean it as criticism of union workers. Quite often, the most demanding test of an exhibitor’s patience was the creativity of other exhibitors.  Again, a sense of humor was helpful, but sometimes lacking. 

One of our most creative customers was the marketing director of a major accessory company.  Let’s call him Bill.  In addition to being aggressively creative, Bill was a genuinely nice guy, which only made it harder to pull the plug on him.  At Anaheim one year, he brought a blues band to his booth. They sounded great...from about fifty yards away. Anyone closer than that couldn’t hear themselves, or anyone else, speak. We had to shut them down after three sets. Bill looked wounded, but took it like a gentleman.

The next year he gave us the silent treatment...literally. He rented a miniature remote controlled blimp emblazoned with his company’s name and logo and had it cruise quietly around the hall at an altitude of about fifteen feet. For some reason, it seemed to linger over his competitor’s booths.  This put their sense of humor to the test. I sensed their patience was becoming frayed when one of them summoned me to their booth, pointed to the offending craft drifting lazily overhead and said that he would personally “shoot the ______er _______er down, if I didn’t get it the ____ out of there now.” We reluctantly brought Bill’s creative genius down to earth, narrowly avoiding aerial warfare in the exhibit hall. Once again, he took it like the gentleman that he was, and I trust, remains.

Chief among the those who can shut a show down with one phone call is the fire marshal. So when the fire marshal in Atlantic City summoned me to the private showroom of a major bicycle brand, I didn’t waste time getting there. They had covered the walls, ceiling and even the furniture with billowing green crepe paper. It looked like one of Christo’s art installations.  

“It’s flame resistant,” the marketing director was pleading to the impassive fire marshal when I got there. The fire marshal tore a two square inch piece of the paper off the wall and led us out into the hallway. He held the shred of paper over an empty metal waste basket, flicked his Bic and touched the flame to the paper, which exploded in a startling incendiary flash. He gave them an hour to peel and remove it from the building.

Smaller exhibitors, understandably, sometimes feel they have to try harder to get their fair share of attention in a huge exhibit hall dominated by immense displays. Occasionally, they go too far. 

In my last show at Anaheim before the transition to new ownership, I heard an ominous, ear splitting ringing sound coming from the far reaches of the exhibit area. It sounded like John Henry’s hammer hitting a cold steel rail. I was doing my best to ignore it (there is no work harder than ignoring an unwelcome truth) when an exhibitor staggered up to me with a pained expression on his face. “You’ve got to do something,” he pleaded. “That caveman is running amuck back there. He’s driving everybody nuts.” 

It was Sunday morning. Industry parties had gone deep into the night before. A large percentage of the show population was in a “delicate condition”.  At such times, any loud noise can make you feel as though your ears are bleeding. Following the complainant back to his booth, I braced myself against the rising din. It was impossible not to flinch at every ringing blow.

We rounded a corner and there he was...Alley Oop in a ten by ten booth, slamming a club, relentlessly, against a hollow steel tube. For the life of me, I can’t remember what he was trying to prove with the demonstration, but he was fiercely committed to it. I guess if you’re going to stand in the middle of an exhibit hall wearing nothing but a loincloth, you need to stay active. If you stopped to think about what you were doing, you’d probably scurry back to the room to put some clothes on.

He seemed impervious to the aural pain he was causing. Of course, I knew him and, of course, he was a good guy. They almost always are. The job of the show producer is to be a conciliator, a facilitator of compromise. And so my career ended, appropriately, with me trying to negotiate an honorable compromise with a perspiring, half-naked caveman holding a club. 

For all its excitement, buzz and impact, a trade show is an ephemeral and vulnerable thing. It’s not just cavemen and fire marshals. The list of things that can stop even the most established show in its tracks is long. In the nights before the show opens, the producer lies wake thinking about transportation strikes, the mood of union stewards, floods, tornadoes, earthquakes and other acts of God, acts of boards of directors, acts of terrorists (they sometimes seem like the same thing) and deaf sound men. And yet, God help me,  I still miss it.

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