February 01, 2012

Real Valley Stories: The Unfinished Booth

Editor's Note: Part 6 in an irregular series of stories from my 13 years in Silicon Valley. Part 5 talked about the tradeoffs of speed, quality and budgeting. This time, a would-be trade show nightmare.

For the first few years in my Marketing career, I spent virtually all my time behind the desk. Relationships were largely through e-mail or by phone, or vendors could come to our office for the occasional pitch, onsite meeting, or creative review. At one point, I must have not left California for as much as a decade, be it for vacation, trade show, or any other reason. That all changed in 2004, when with the sudden departure of a colleague who had to date held the role of events manager, the luck of running the entire experience fell to me - from pre-show promotion to materials transport, handling and setup to lead collection and pipeline tracking.

That summer posed the first real challenge with the arrival of the Siggraph trade show in Los Angeles. Our company, well before I had taken over the role, had selected an exhibit space of 400 square feet, with a standard 20 foot by 20 foot configuration. We had customized our booth after buying it from a company that had once seen better days. The previous events manager had kept the procedures around trade show planning an undocumented secret, so I set out weeks in advance to make sure we booked and shipped everything to Southern California in time for the important show.

A month or so ahead of Siggraph, the operations manager and I visited the warehouse to see the booth materials for ourselves. But the boxes containing the booth and its pieces were stacked high above us. Between us both, we selected the boxes we were sure contained all the walls, poles and signage needed, and were good to go - all without demanding the warehouse owners took them down by forklift to be further examined. As far as we knew, that was true. But come the day before show start, I quickly learned different.

As most trade show veterans know, the day (or multiple days) before an event starts, event planners and experienced union workers band together to assemble trade show booths, from unrolling carpeting and laying electrical, to propping up signage and setting up the welcome area. This time, as the crew came to get started on my booth, they examined the instructions, glanced at the boxes we had brought, and quickly determined it wasn't all there. They gestured to me, we looked two or three more times, and it was obvious we had basically shipped half a booth, and the rest of the booth was in boxes hundreds of miles north, in the Bay Area.

Not a good thing, considering securing space at the trade show was tens of thousands of dollars, and revenue from the show should be much higher. So I called another colleague back at headquarters, who zipped back to the warehouse to find the missing pieces, and had them put on a truck immediately, to begin driving south toward Los Angeles. The boxes, in time, would find us, and somehow we would get it done. So the union team and I caught up and decided they would go work on other booths until our equipment came.

The morning turned to afternoon. Afternoon turned to evening. No good news. The only update was from the driver of the truck, who called to say he had hit traffic from an accident on I-5, which would make him hours later. The union team, meanwhile, called me, and said they had completed all other work, and that we were now on the clock, with or without our booth. I couldn't disagree.

Around 11 p.m. the night before the show, with doors opening at 8 the following morning, the truck containing the missing boxes with our missing pieces arrived at the convention center. Our small team of union workers and I worked around since-locked doors and the array of quietly finished booths to get started. They were now on overtime pay, obviously, and probably on double overtime.

As the booth started to take shape, around 1 a.m. there was more discussion and commotion and clear confusion among the team - as they couldn't find the largest piece of the entire booth, a vertical pole which supported a top branding sign and the right wing of the booth itself. It was nowhere to be found. At this point, I just said to continue and do all they could. By 2 a.m., approaching 2:30, the booth looked like a booth, only without our brand name at the top. Instead, it just said "Network Storage", which confused attendees to no end in the days ahead.

Thanking each of the workers, and giving them each an equal share of all the cash I had personally pulled out of my own money from the ATM, I considered the night done, and wrapped up just five hours before we were supposed to open. One of the men, not wanting me to walk back to my hotel that late at night, gave me a lift home.

The following morning, I was at our booth in uniform ready to greet customers, to the odd stares of those neighboring booths who had finished their setup days with our area being a blank square of carpet. More than one person came by to ask what had happened as our booth had seriously popped up overnight. Later that afternoon, a man came by and interrupted me saying that he had found the missing long pole that belonged with our booth, in the back of his truck, wrapped in carpeting, and that in all the haste to get down the state, and to unload, he had overlooked it. The following question was, "Do you want to put the rest of the booth up overnight tonight?"

I thought about it for a brief second, and said no. One night was enough. Somehow, we finished the event in fair shape, though it was not perfect, and somehow, I didn't see any ill effects of the incident in my job. But it was something I didn't want to experience again - a perfect example of needing to be fully prepared and adequately making sure that no one person, especially one eager to leave the company, has all the information you need to succeed. And that's a real story.

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