Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 25, 2016

A Show in the Kitchens of Hell

My work as a media and communications producer has included attending and staging large events. I’ve spent a good portion of my life in convention halls and hotel ballrooms.

Last week, I had my first opportunity to combine my interest in big trade shows and love of music by attending the NAMM (National Association of Music Merchandisers) conference in Anaheim, California.

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At this show, thousands of retailers, educators, engineers, technicians and performers have serious work to do: selecting merchandise for their stores, learning about new techniques and equipment, studying trends and checking out their competitors.

With about 100,000 people in attendance, it’s big. There are thousands of exhibits, demonstrations, performances, seminars and millions of dollars’ worth of serious business being conducted.

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Every type of musical instrument, device, accessory and service is on display, from beginners’ level to the most advanced, in overpowering profusion.

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What’s missing from all these photos is the SOUND. All large trade shows are noisy, but at NAMM, tens of thousands of items in the vast exhibit hall were being struck, twanged, bowed, plucked, blown and banged. “Cacophony” barely suffices to describe the overwhelming aural environment. Although the organizers do their best to control it, the sound level can resemble the kitchens of hell after a few hours. There was music being made on every square inch of the tens of thousands of square feet of floor, like this impromptu saxophone duo playing a very cool arrangement:

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With so much happening at one time, it’s essential to have some plan about what you will see, whom you want to meet with, and what you need to accomplish.

For The Counselor and I, our mission was clear: We attended informational sessions about marketing and communications trends in the music business. We learned a great deal and came away informed and stimulated to learn more.

Still, we’re both music lovers, and I’m an amateur musician, so it was a pleasure to wander the exhibit aisles, seeing the latest instruments from the world’s best manufacturers. As a harmonica player, I was pleased to discover Hohner offering a set of harmonicas endorsed by blues master Phil Wiggins, a wonderful man, a brilliant player and, as it happens, the man who taught me to play. Here I am holding the “Piedmont Blues” package set:

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A core part of what the brands do to attract attention to their exhibits is appearances and performances by top musicians who play that company’s products. We encountered several well-known maestros, including L.A. bassman, Leland Sklar, guitar virtuoso Steve Morse and a solo improvisation performance by bassist extraordinaire Victor Wooten.

A special treat was a performance by guitar legend, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter of Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers. Here he is (seated, left), playing with Gene Cornish, original member of The Rascals.

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The show was fun, exciting, stimulating and exhausting. If your work has ever taken you to one of these big events, you already know that. If not, here are a few important tips for a more successful show:

Have a plan: the single most important rule. The events are large and diverse, replete with distractions, and only portions of the show are relevant to you. All events have extensive websites; use them in advance to map out your strategy. Be prepared to change tactics once you’re there by having a priority list; some things will prove too distant or too time consuming. Wandering aimlessly through the displays and demonstrations wastes not only precious time, but energy. You’re going to walk several miles and engage in endless conversations. Expend your time and energy prudently, or you’ll wear out and fail to get some of the important tasks done.

Planning involves knowing how to get there. In the case of NAMM, the Convention Center is immediately adjacent to Disneyland. The streets are jammed with tens of thousands of cars, mostly from out of town, looking for parking for the resort or for the event. Allow plenty of time, and prepare to pay. In the U.S., big conventions happen in busy cities, including Las Vegas and Orlando, and you will experience heavy traffic.

Notify contacts who might be there. It’s frustrating to fly a few thousand miles and spend a couple of days at an event, only to discover later that a friend or colleague was there from another part of the planet, and you missed a chance to connect. Use Facebook and Linkedin to let contacts know you’ll be there.

Keep records and notes, whether photos, written notes, business cards and flyers: anything that will help you recall and organize the flood of information that can overwhelm you afterwards. Unless you’re a remarkable person, you’ll forget things unless you have some references.

Take a break. Step outside. Sit down. Drink some water. A ten or fifteen minute rest break every couple of hours will help you sustain yourself over a long, long day. Use the time to plan what you’ll do next.

Look for an area called “Publications” or “Newsstand.” Every trade show has a display of the industry publications, free for the taking. Here are a few we brought from NAMM:

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Be selective: you’re going to have to carry them around!

Take snacks. Most shows have some variety of food service, but it’s not always what you’d normally eat, it’s not always in a convenient place and it may be expensive. Having something handy that you like to eat may save you time and money, and help you sustain your energy and focus.

Be attentive. If you’re lucky, as we were, you may even catch something interesting as you leave, like Dr. John doing a sound check for the evening performance.

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Have an interesting trade show experience or pointers to share? I welcome your comments.

© Brad Nixon 2017. Harmonica photo © Marcy Vincent 2017, used by kind permission.



  1. Great tips to remember for every trade show experience.


  2. Wow, what detail and thoroughness of planning! Can I hire you as my Trip Advisor? 😎


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