Posted by: Brad Nixon | February 13, 2010

Snow Job: Part 2

Inspired by the epic blizzard in the mid-Atlantic states, I continue my tale of what can happen to meeting planners whose events are interrupted by natural disasters. To see Part 1 of this story, go HERE.

During my freelancing year I landed a gig to produce a trade show booth for a technology company at an event to be held that March at the New Orleans Convention Center. I had a couple of months to get it organized. My client was a real pro, veteran of dozens of trade shows, and I had every reason to expect success.

Trade shows are the county fairs of the industrial complex. You’ve been to a county fair, but picture yourself not out on the Midway under the stars with the rides swirling, the carousel oom-pahing, the homemade root beer and cotton candy and the barkers in the ball-toss booths trying to draw you in to toss three ping-pong balls into goldfish bowls and WIN A PRIZE. Instead, imagine you’ve wandered in under the grandstand, and are wandering down lines of booths offering free rug cleaning, pest control, chiropractic medicine and lifetime-guaranteed polished nails. That’s a trade show. What catches your attention? What makes you stop, even for three seconds to look at the display or take one of the brochures? That was our job in New Orleans: to make the gawkers stop. This trade show covered 100,000 square feet of floor, with hundreds of booths and thousands of gawkers. We needed something to capture attention long enough to get passers-by to listen to information about our product and then remember it a week later when someone from a telemarketing firm we’d hired called them up to ask if they were interested in buying something.

The concept we developed was a standard trade show gag: a live actor would portray a character who told a story that would require responses from the audience. This is a time-tested principle of learning theory: people remember more information when they hear it, see it and actively participate in some way.

It’s already occurred to you that this is not a new idea. What we had, essentially, was a medicine show pulled up at the edge of the County Fair. The barker — our actor — needs enough charisma and an engaging spiel to stand out against all the competing noise from other booths, and to get the “marks” to stop and listen. Once we did that, we had┬átrinkets to hand out that contained contact information for the company. We would repeat this little medicine show every twenty minutes throughout two eight-hour days of the trade show. Our “play” was a mystery story. Our actor portrayed a Sam Spade-like detective, sorting through clues to solve a business problem. If the audience participated, they could solve the mystery and arrive at the solution which was, of course, to buy our product. Now that I actually type this description, nearly 15 years later, it seems hopelessly lame.

In two months we researched the technical material, wrote the script, ordered the booth, designed the graphics and the giveaways, laid out brochures and handouts, hired the on site crew and made the travel reservations.

My actor and I arrived in New Orleans from Los Angeles. My client arrived from San Diego, and my three-person crew providing graphics and projection and tech support flew in from the Midwest. The client and I were at a Marriott downtown, not far from the Convention Center, and the rest of the crew stayed at a cheaper place out in suburban Metairie and would drive in from there the next morning, which was the setup day, one day before the show opened.

We spent a long day getting the booth set up, fine-tuning the projectors and graphics, and running through the show with the actor. We set an early call for the next morning, and we split up to head back to our respective hotels. I did some organizing of my notes and materials that I’d need the next day. I was tired, but wanted to see at least a little more of New Orleans than I’d get by eating in the hotel, and I walked across the street to a little joint that promised at least a reasonable imitation of local food. The food in New Orleans is justifiably world-renowned, but tonight I’d be satisfied with red beans and rice and a beer. There’d be a couple more evenings on which the crew and I could go have some more in-depth exploration of the cuisine.

It was really just a little bar in a narrow shotgun building, and I sat on a barstool. It was raining: a heavy downpour that had been coming down most of the afternoon. As I sat there, water began flowing into the doorway from the now-flooded street, but, since no one else in the place seemed to take any notice, and since I was up on a bar stool, I didn’t move. I assumed this was part of life in a place that’s several feet below sea level, and that they had engineered the place to let the water drain out. But the water kept flowing through the door in a growing torrent. The floor of the little place was awash first ankle-deep and then calf-deep. I decided to move. I paid the bill and sloshed out to the doorway. The street had become a rushing river. Rain fell in torrents. I waded into the street through water that was up over my knees, hoping that I wouldn’t step into an open manhole and disappear into the sewers of New Orleans. I made it, soaked, to the hotel, which was chaos. Water was filling the lobby. Windows on the weather side of the building’s 5th floor had blown in and rain was flooding that floor. I made it to my room higher up in the hotel and reached my client and the actor, who both told me about their view of this rain. I turned on the TV. The news was what I expected. An epic storm was on top of us, and the predicted rainfall was, well, not something I was willing to believe.

I tried to reach my crew, but there was no answer from any of them. I did not have a cell phone in those days. I had to hope they’d call me.

19 inches of rain fell on New Orleans in that one night. The vast system of gigantic pumps that clear water out of the bowl of the city could not keep up, and New Orleans was awash, as were the suburbs, including Metairie. Out there, it turned out, my crew had gone to a restaurant for dinner, but while they ate, the parking lot of the place filled up with water, immersing the cars almost up to the windows. They spent the night marooned in the restaurant, sleeping on booths as best they could.

The trade show never opened. Parts of the convention center, which sits on the edge of the Mississippi, flooded, though fortunately not our exhibit hall. The next day, the streets had drained out, but the hall was closed until they could pump out the facility, so I wandered around New Orleans. The next day, originally to be the last day of the show, they let us back in the hall and we disassembled the booth, packed up and started arranging for shipping it all out.

Our two months of planning, the client’s investment in all the preparations, boxes of giveaways and gear all vaporized, and that opportunity was gone.

The Big Easy. Easy come, easy go. I have this funny inclination now to have some contingency plans in my head when I do an event: what if ….



  1. That’s the first I’ve heard of that experience Brad, what fun.


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