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When Trade Shows are Worse than Speed Dating

Can our columnist outlast a shy customer in the ritualistic convention dance?

Trade show time in the beautiful Pacific Northwest. One of those one-day, tabletop affairs. Cheap to exhibit. Easy logistics. No extortionate setup fees from the event promoters, like you see at the really big shows with the four-letter acronyms and the five-figure expense, just looking out for the betterment of our industry. (You know who you are.) Pristine setting a bonus. (Who doesn’t like traveling to the Pacific Northwest?!) Those who fancy salmon are rewarded.

Ten-minute teardown at show close at 3 pm, leaving time for beerful reflection at day’s end. Good risk/reward ratio if you snag one new customer; life is really good if you land two. A high incidence of engineers and technicians in attendance, our target crowd. An infrequent opportunity to reconnect with existing customers, too, in a relaxed setting. Comfortable surroundings afford productive time to share gossip, spread rumors, and hatch conspiracies with friends and colleagues, both esteemed and otherwise.

In the midst of these festivities, he makes his entrance. He will not tell you his name. Paradoxically, he wants you to know who he is, but you must work for that knowledge. His show badge is discreetly, deliberately tucked into his shirt, away from inquisitorial, peddling eyes. Not unlike a Catholic bishop who hides his pectoral cross. A techie bishop. No business card, its absence connoting importance. No eye contact either. He mumbles, deliberately. He deflects questions.

Clearly he’s had some coaching, or peer influence has rubbed off. He won’t tell you where he works at first. No way, no how. Then he gushes about his employer anyway, in a sort of Ivy League-ish boastfulness, daring you to ask, dropping large enough hints that you grab the bait. He wants you to grab the bait, while preserving his aura of exclusivity. It’s in the culture. One of the cool kids. Because he exudes awesomeness simply because of where he works, and he sends enough signals that he wants you to know that. Can barely contain it. He can’t resist. He desperately wants you to know, but he won’t tell you, craving the attention. Like a Cheshire Cat without the self-satisfying grin. It’s Seattle, after all, serious business, and the field of usual suspects narrows with a few pointed questions. He really does want you to know, but you have to solve his riddles to recognize his employer. He craves the attention these riddles provide. Like it or not, he is the New Generation, and he has married privilege, to which we are expected to genuflect. He is the Reality We Must Deal With. Greetings, earthlings.

Call him Amazon Guy.

He works the room, gliding from table to table in splendid anonymity, not lingering at any too long, lest some eager salesperson engage him in unwelcome, intrusive and all-too-revealing conversation. He keeps moving. He asks limited, general questions, not wanting to disclose much, keeping it all at a need-to-know level. Nothing sticks; he is Teflon. He is their advance scout, and today is Reconnaissance Day on somebody else’s dime. The mothership awaits his report.

He could be Facebook Guy, or Netflix Guy, or Apple Guy or Google Guy. Or even Startup Guy. It’s not the company. It’s the attitude. And it’s almost always guys.
They all went to the same school: Plain Vanilla Institute of Technology. Double major in engineering and obfuscation. With honors.

On his second orbit of the room he lands back at our table, and starts entertaining himself by leafing through a stack of 3-D CT scanning images provocatively arranged in our display. He seems interested; maybe the images have their own unique gravitational pull. Anyway, they pull him. He looks away, then looks back, several times. Like he’s satisfying a guilty pleasure. There is interest. Time for dialogue. Countering his habits, we do our best to make eye contact and extend pleasantries.

“Can we explain those images to you?”

“I know what they are.”

Of course he does. He says this while directing his speech at an oblique angle from where you sit, no doubt capitalizing on the acoustics.

“In that case, can we help you with similar services? It appears you are interested in our CT scanning capabilities. Is there a specific problem we may assist you in resolving? Do one or more of these CT scans resemble a problem you’re dealing with now? Give us some details and we’ll see if there’s a match.”

No answer. Not even so much as an acknowledgment. That rigorous cultural immersion training again. Admit nothing. He continues to sift through the assorted images without comment. Like a detective. Or a spy. Maybe he is a spy. Matching things scrupulously. Assessing what his own operation lacks, and what his superiors need.

“May we take down your contact information so we might send you some literature about our services?”

Again, no answer at first. Then mumbling, directed at no one in particular. Then a hastily averted gaze. Then departure, doubtless to forestall further engagement. He leaves the room, maintaining the mystery.

But then he comes back 30 minutes later, following the conclusion of a stemwinder about thermosetting adhesives. Fifty-seven utterly captivating PowerPoint slides in 4K vision and surround sound. He looks somewhat reduced from the edge-of-your-seat excitement, like part of him sweated itself away, leaving fatigue.

Thermosetting adhesives will do that to you.

The ritual of engagement renews. Haley’s Comet on fast-forward. Further detached scrutiny of our x-ray and CT scanning images. He has a problem and he wants something. The truth is out there. Despite the odds, time to attempt contact with intelligent civilization, using better means.

“Can we interest you in some of our other testing services?”

Once again, it’s Sphinx 3.0. No verbal acknowledgment whatsoever. He pivots away and saunters down our row of display tables, stopping at one or two of them to stare at the wares on display, always careful to keep that name badge safely tucked away and not prone to gravity-induced revelation. Preserving precious anonymity, but only just. So goes the act.

He leaves the room yet again. This time it’s to answer the universal call for sustenance. Lunch, made more agreeable by being free for all attendees and exhibitors alike, whether with exposed badges or not. No discrimination here. The hotel has set up warming trays directly outside of our ballroom. A queue of hungry attendees and exhibitors forms in two orderly rows, flanking the table, clutching their cheesy trade show swag bags and balancing them on one hand while manipulating plates of food on the other.

Duly provisioned, he returns to the hall yet again. The sponsors of the show have positioned several large, round tables in the center of the hall. We exhibitors have our tables situated around the perimeter of the room, creating a deliberate bullpen effect, thus enabling us to size up the occupants of the large round tables while they consume their free lunch. Evidently somebody did market research that food choice predicts sales prospects. You are what you eat.

He eats alone.

We scrutinize him for 20 minutes. We eat, too, at our display table. Thus energized, both him and, hopefully, us, we hope for better prospects. There are challenges.

It is well-known that the afternoon portion of a one-day show is often the Dead Zone, when interest lags and attendance drops because locals lose the excuse to skip out for lunch and need to return to work. Afternoon speakers can sap attendance too. Nonetheless, his trajectory brings him to our table a fourth time, not talking with his mouth full and not yet nodding off from milk and cookies.

We politely resume the sales ritual. It is why we’re here in this ballroom, after all. Something keeps drawing him back. What is it that interests him: The cool pictures? The holographic images of CT scans we’re displaying? Why does he refuse to articulate what he wants? How is it that we are we not clicking with this guy? His body language screams we are not fulfilling expectations. Our body language retorts that we are tired of faking sincerity. Get to the point.

He doesn’t get to the point. He drifts off yet again. Maybe he’s composing his RFQ in his mind, with the meticulousness of a Shakespearean soliloquy. Maybe he’s under orders to commit to nothing, like a North Korean diplomat. Or perhaps he’s just really shy. Then again, maybe he really is a spy.

This is worse than speed dating.

The hall is, predictably, thinly populated. Mostly salespersons standing or wandering around, telling tales. We have entered the Boredom Phase, between last speaker and the blessed relief of cocktail hour. It can’t come soon enough.

Salesman’s self-reinforcing lies are interrupted by a fifth apparition. He’s back. Still no words are exchanged. This gentleman needs elocution lessons. I’m tempted to recommend a good book he can get on Amazon.

This time, however, he gathers remembrances. We have pens. He scoops up pens from our table. We have brochures. He covetously grabs a bunch and stuffs them into his solder paste company bag. We have flash drives, emblazoned with our logo, for his precious memories. He greedily takes one of those, too. He looks fulfilled. He grins for the first time. Mission accomplished. He takes his leave, secure as a man can be, holding a Day-Glo green shopping bag. The mothership awaits.

Beam him up.