The Shows Did Go On

Anything Stranger than 2021 Events? Umm … yes.

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By Emerson Schwartzkopf

After more than a year of hibernation, in-person trade shows for the hard-surfaces industry came back in 2021. Not as big as before the pandemic, and with fewer attendees, but with doors open and ready to do business. In spite of all my complaints through the years – the locations, the travel, the inevitable hassles – I appreciated the return of open convention halls and miles-upon-miles of trooping the aisles. There’s a love-hate relationship between myself and trade shows, but I felt far more of the former than the latter this year. The road to 2021 events contained its own unique set of obstacles, from 110°F heat (TISE, June, Las Vegas) to a close-by hurricane (Coverings, July, Orlando) to the new tests, forms and checkpoints of international travel (Cersaie and Marmomac, September, Italy, which I detail here). Could anything top this year for trade-show oddities? Well … in my case, yes. Let’s set the time machine to minus-20 and go back to a very memorable year: 2001. I wasn’t in the hard-surfaces industry then; I worked for several publications covering the then-booming fields of digital printing and professional digital photography. The big events in those sectors came in the fall, and I’d just finished a big issue for trade shows late in the evening on Sept. 10, 2001. When I woke up the next morning, I turned on the TV at the moment United 175 hit the World Trade Center’s South Tower. It took a few days for the shock to subside to the point I started wondering about all those trade shows on my schedule. Fourteen days after the terrorist attacks, I boarded a commercial flight to San Francisco to attend Seybold, a then-popular show for digital printing. Six other passengers got on the Boeing 737 for the hour-long flight, and the empty airliner portended the rest of that trip’s experience. (Five other passengers joined me on the return flight a few days later.) Huge sections of the convention hall’s exhibit space sat empty, as major companies halted travel immediately after 9/11 and withdrew the introduction of new products. Aisles that were too crowded to move through in 2000 saw only a few attendees at a time in 2001. It had the look and feel of a ghost show; that became a reality a few years later, as Seybold foundered and stopped. The organizers of another show that October saved me the effort of heading to the Los Angeles area when they called off their annual event. That trade show lived on, but the cancellation claimed a different casualty; the head of the sponsoring trade association died of a sudden heart attack less than a month after the postponement. That left one show on that year’s schedule, and it became one of my strangest business trips: early November 2001 in New York. I knew this would be a strange journey before boarding my flight to New York. Wwhen I went to the airport Applebee’s for breakfast, the table cutlery consisted of a plastic spoon and fork, which I had to return to the waitress to be allowed to leave. The limited menu resulted from security officials confiscating all the restaurant’s knives, and all ingredients needed to be cut offsite and delivered to the kitchen and bar. The taxi to my hotel stopped in the middle of Second Avenue in Manhattan and left me and my luggage in the middle of the street. I thought this was the height of New York rudeness, until I learned my lodging sat behind a security perimeter and filled-to-the-brim sanding trucks blocked access to its 42nd Street front door. (This month's column photo shows the impromptu barrier.) The rest of the trip included plenty of surreal scenes, although the light attendance and exhibits at the event were all-too-real. The experience netted me what’s probably the ultimate trade-show story. One of the exhibitors I met had been at the location – the Javits Convention Center – on the morning of Sept. 11 doing final setup for a different event. Right before the show’s opening, sirens sounded and police hustled everyone out of the building and off the premises. The city took control of the facility for emergency use, and a couple of front-end loaders entered the hall and scooped everything wall-to-wall – displays, equipment, pipes and drapes, carpet, the works – and shoveled the mix out the door. Everyone was compensated for their losses, but it was likely the ultimate New York showstopper. In the immediate post-9/11 environment, the industries I covered (like the trade events) took a massive hit, and much of my work dried up. At that point, I was asked to evaluate plans for a publication in an industry totally unfamiliar to me: dimensional stone. It led to my involvement with Stone Business Magazine and, now, Stone Update Magazine. In a way, a year of strange trade shows 20 years ago found me a new career. I’m glad to be here, and I’ll readily go through another year of filling out endless forms, continually getting poked in the nose, and dealing with Las Vegas in any condition to be part of the action. I’ll pass on another hurricane, though.