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Payphones & Pagers

I was sitting at dinner a while back with a group of five people ranging in age from the late 20s to the early 60s. I’m afraid I am closer to the upper end of the spectrum. At some point, the discussion turned to use of social media among the group. While all of us had some experience with today’s popular social media outlets, there was a definite leaning to the younger in the group when it came to expertise.


After a lengthy discussion on the merits of today’s various methods of electronic communication, the youngest asked a question of those of us at the other end of the age scale: How did you survive in the tradeshow business without this technology? How did you communicate from the show floor? The answers to this – and the litany of follow-up questions – led to wonderment for the younger and fond memories for the older.

In 1981, when I did my first show, there was no social media and there were no cell phones. In fact, I didn’t even have a computer on my desk. Really, how did we communicate? We must have walked into other people’s offices or spoke with them on the telephone.

Show-service orders were filled out by hand on forms taken from the three-ring binder we received in the mail from the show management company. Once completed, we took the forms down the hall to the copier, where we stood in line and waited for the copy attendant to make copies for us as we were not qualified to operate the copier. (O.K., maybe some things haven’t changed – I still struggle with operating the copier in our office). We then mailed in the forms. Later, we used a facsimile machine to submit them.

Relating this whole process to the young folks at the table had them rolling with laughter. “How far in advance did you have to start planning?” they asked. We certainly didn’t get to wait until the last minute to email our forms.

Traveling to the show also was very different. From where I lived, we traveled primarily on Ozark Airlines and Trans World Airlines.

We walked straight to the gate from our cars – no security stops, no probing questions from TSA agents and, well, no probing at all.

You did want to book your flights early, though. Otherwise, you would end up with a seat in the smoking section. In the completely sealed tube of an aircraft, it was just the last several rows of the cabin. Imagine how well that worked.

When I was on the show floor, I called the office from a pay phone in the lobby during the morning and afternoon labor breaks. Only a few years after I started were we issued pagers. When the pager went off, we found a pay phone and called in – if we could break from what we were doing.

During the show, I remember standing in line to use a payphone. The banks of payphones at McCormick Place – when there was only what is now called Lakeside Center – were stacked eight to 10 deep with people waiting to call their offices. I discovered that if you went to the 7-Level, the basement of the hall, there was a pocket of payphones most people did not know about.

Some things we take for granted today just simply would not have been possible then. That large graphic you just decided had to change while you are setting up? Today, we would call the agency to create new art and have them email the art to our laptop at the show site. We would have the client approve it and email it to our local graphic producer in the show city. He or she would email us a proof for approval an hour later and would have it printed overnight so we could install it the next morning. None of this would have been possible then.

And at the end of a show day, you took your clients or your crew to dinner and spent the evening socializing rather than going back to your hotel room to read and catch up on 50 to 100 emails. Back then, we focused on what was in front of us – working with our clients and crews to build their exhibits on the show floor, not stopping every few seconds to check an email or update a Facebook page or tweet about the weather in the hall.

I don’t want this piece to end up sounding like an old fart reminiscing about the “good ole days,” but our current fascination with technology has taken some of the face-to-face nature out of our business. I miss spending more time with my clients on the show site. It seems we all run back to our hotels to check email or wander off to a quiet place in the hall to check our social media on our smart phones.

I do sometimes fear we are losing perspective – we are not living in the moment, in the here and now, with those we are physically with right now, whether that’s in the office or on the show floor. I’d like to create memories with the people I am standing next to, not those somewhere off in cyberspace.

See you on the show floor.
Jim Obermeyer has been in the tradeshow industry 30 years, both as a corporate tradeshow manager and exhibit house executive. He is a partner in the tradeshow and event marketing firm Reveal. He can be reached at jobermeyer@revealexhibits.com.

Posted in As the Saw Turns
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