Confessions of a First-Time Exhibitor

By Tom Peters |

After attending 20 ALA Annual Conferences (Dallas, New Orleans, Atlanta, NYC, shaky LA, Chicago...) as a rank-and-file librarian, I arrived in Anaheim late last month as a first-time exhibitor.  It was an interesting experience, to put it mildly.  I opted to start with a regular 10 x 10 booth exhibit, rather than a table.  Because it was all new to me, I had to learn about costs, conference service providers, and generally how not to  make a fool of myself.  I think I succeeded, but I have my doubts.

I ordered a single Internet line into my booth, which cost me more than I ever have paid in a year for a DSL connection (from AT&T, no less) or my current satellite Internet connection from Wild Blue.  That's right--for three and a half days (28 hours, really) of Internet connectivity in my booth, I paid more than my usual annual cost of a good Internet connection at my home-based businessThe connection worked quite well, I have to admit.  I was able to demo the online stuff I was vending (I won't mention the names of the products...this isn't an infomercial), check my email during the "trances in the blast," and even upload some video files.  There was a general problem with the Internet connection in the exhibit halls during the first half hour that the exhibits were open on the third or fourth day (I forget which), but the folks from Smart City quickly fixed it. 

Everything about exhibiting at a major conference like this was surprisingly expensive.  The two chairs that I rented for 3 and a half days could have been purchased in the Midwest for less.  Maybe next time I'll bring my own portable lawn chairs, but then the airline will charge me for excessive baggage. 

People warned me about the rigors of exhibiting at ALA.  They said my feet and legs would become sore.  I mentally scoffed. The training webinar for exhibitors, which was very informative, cautioned against the negative impact of sitting in a booth.  To be open to interacting with people walking by your booth, you need to be standing.  Because I operate a one-person company (and one dog, if we count Max), I planned to be a solo exhibitor, which meant I was going to be standing there most of those 28 hours.  Well, my feet and legs became extremely sore.  On the final morning of the exhibits I would "sneak a sit" during the lulls in the traffic.  

As an exhibitor, all I really wanted to do was talk to conference attendees about my products, and demo the products to them.  The first hurdle to overcome is establishing eye contact.  Many librarians in the exhibits seem to avoid looking at the exhibitors.  As I stood there (on increasingly sore feet) thinking about this, it dawned on me that I did the same thing for 20 years as I made my way through the exhibit halls.  My goal was to learn about new products, services, and trends, without really talking much to the exhitors, unless I initiated the conversation.  Avoiding eye contact is a great way to avoid a conversation.  

If you stand still in one place for a considerable period of time, you begin to notice things that you don't notice when you are moving.  Maybe that's why sharks are so dumb.  Lots of interesting people walk by over the course of a day.  There were some fantastic outfits and hats.  One woman walked by dressed as what I assumed was Little Bo Peep.  She may have been on her way to some vendor gig.  Anyway, she was a large-boned young woman, so, truth to tell, she was Big Bo Peep.  


Speaking of big, Kareem Abdul Jabbar walked up and down our aisle several times on his way to and from signing copies of his new book.  He didn't establish eye contact with me, either, although I think he had his own reasons, learned long ago during his playing days, for avoiding eye contact with his fans.  

The strangest character I encountered, however, was a guy in a monkey suit who was helping promote the products at the IBISworld exhibit in the next aisle over.  That suit must have been hot, because every hour or so the monkey guy need to be escorted to an outdoor area for some fresh air.  One morning I spotted him alone and untended in the open-air food court, with his monkey head lifted just enough to let in some fresh air.  I asked him if I could make a video interview of him with my Flip video camera.  He replied (in a nice tone) that I would need to ask the manager of the IBISworld exhibit.  So I did ask Harvey from IBISworld, who readily consented to an interview. 

I captured the interview in two parts (three really, but consider this the director's cut) and uploaded Part 2 and Part 3 to YouTube.  The next time I exhibit, I may hire Go Bananas to help out.  With his monkey head on, there's no possibility of establishing eye contact.