Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Working Conventions and Trade Shows

The Spring and Fall in Vegas seem to be convention season. And that's a season I love more than football, baseball, or zombie-hunting season. Because I loves me some conventions. So this will be an ode to the multitude of reasons why I enjoy working trade shows.
Badges? We don't need no stinkin' badges!
(Okay, yes we do).

First off, not every caricature artist likes working trade shows. And not every caricature artist should try. Some folks get into this business because they don't want to deal with suits and ties. At conventions, it's wall-to-wall suits and ties (usually; every con has its own unique demographic). You are expected to look corporate, be on your game, play by the company rules, and sometimes even sell their product or services while you draw. And just because someone can draw, it doesn't automatically mean they're good at all that other stuff--as evidenced by the complaints I have heard from clients about bad experiences they've had hiring artists all over the country. One client was reluctant to hire a caricature artist in Vegas because the previous year, in another city, their artist had shown up late, wearing shorts and flip-flops! Even when I've been booked through an agency, sometimes trade show clients insist on talking to me directly before they sign the agent's contract . . . and it's clear they are sizing me up on the phone, making sure I sound like a professional person who can represent their booth for a few days. A mini-job-interview, if you will. I don't mind. After all, some of these folks are trying to be careful because they have been burned in the past. I want to un-burn them so that hiring a caricature artist is a pleasant (and more frequent) experience for them, in all the cities they have trade shows.

Money, Honey!

Well, obviously there's a paycheck involved. Though I usually offer a discounted rate (as most entertainers do) if a company hires me for a period of days, it still works out to a nice bit of scratch by the end of the show. And it's way less tiresome than cobbling together seven or eight two-hour birthday parties for toddlers. One high-profile client, one location, one check, done. Feels good. Some folks seem to view trade shows as the pinnacle of live caricature work. Trade show reps are representing multi-million dollar companies, and they are writing company checks. Those don't bounce, and the folks paying you never try to haggle or otherwise get free work out of you. 

Sharpening My Covert Spy Skills!

My first conventions, years ago, were intimidating. There are certainly things to consider that go beyond having enough paper and plastic bags. Plus Vegas is home to some of the largest trade shows in the world . . . leading to snarled traffic, nonexistent parking, and lines for badges that stretch for hours at the really big 200,000+ conventions. So, you learn to plan ahead and, if that fails, you learn to bypass security, park in little-known secret areas a few blocks from the convention center, and find the quickest possible way across a crowded trade-show floor.

These days, I have honed the set of precautions I take. First, I make sure that agents are giving me the RIGHT convention center. National agents (or their new hires) sometimes don't realize there are several really huge convention centers in town, most attached to really huge hotels. I have had agents look up "Convention Center, Las Vegas" on google and give me the address to the main LVCC even though the event was at, say, Mandalay Bay Convention Center or the Sands Expo Convention Center. I usually plan to arrive HOURS ahead of the start time if it's the first day of a really huge convention, I bring cash money to pay huge parking fees, and I always touch base with the client beforehand and warn them that cell phones are sometimes useless at these events. Coverage is getting better year by year, but often the huge number of cell-phone-toting conventioneers means that 3G or 4G signals are overloaded. There goes your hope of getting a text message or successfully calling your contact. So you'd better already have the booth number and any information you'll need to pick up a badge.

Papers? You don't need to see my
papers. I have an easel.
And badges. Ahhhhh, badges. Most of the time they are a cinch to pick up at the registration desk. But sometimes clients forget to put you on the list, sometimes they assume they'll just meet you outside and let you borrow a communal badge, sometimes they have no idea that security will be tight and badges are necessary for workers like me. I've luckily always made it in, on time, even at a gig recently where I ended up having to talk my way in badgeless and race across a huge field of construction equipment to the other side of the multi-building convention hall. Thank goodness for powerful deodorant!

When one of my early mentors gave me my first French easel, he bestowed it with the words "This will help you get into any venue, anywhere. You can get backstage to a Rolling Stones concert with one of these, I hope you realize." And he was right. Not that I've ever tried to get anywhere I wasn't hired to be . . . but I've still seen the benefits of toting an easel and looking like an artist. At one convention years back, I had ducked past security and was heading to my job site when a cop on a golf cart called after me. I winced as I turned around, worried that I'd be denied entry, but he kindly said "That looks heavy, why don't I drive you to where you have to go. Are you an artist?"

I heard somewhere that the weakest point in any security system is always the human element. And boy is that true. I've had so many kind security guards bend the rules for me that it's not even a challenge anymore. It probably helps that I'm female and have a trustworthy-looking face, whatever that is.

Getting to Play Dress-up

Professional attire usually just means my standard black-and-white gig outfit, but many trade show clients want you to wear khaki pants and ask for your shirt size so they can bring a company shirt for you. It feels so . . . foreign . . . walking around with all these professionals, wearing a "disguise" to fit in with all the non-artist businessfolk at a trade show. Kind of fun. I'd imagine Superman feels this way when he dons the reporter outfit, ha.

But every once in a while a company has a "theme" or wants something that will really stand out. While I have never advertised myself as a "booth babe" or costumed character, this job has required me to dress up in funny outfits from time to time. An insurance company that erected a big faux castle at one of the regular Vegas trade shows asked me if I had any medieval wench-type garb that I could wear. I hoped they couldn't pick up on the excitement in my voice when I said "Um, yeah, I could probably put something together."

Rubbing Elbows with Experts!

Knowledge can be powerful. And it's really fun to collect. One of the huge perks of my job is that I get to have 5 to 10 minutes of face-time with experts on just about every field you can imagine. It's like being Barbara Walters on a much, much smaller scale (and I usually don't make people cry during the interview process). Once I had a corporate client give me a very observant compliment: he didn't say "gosh you draw great, I can't even draw stick figures!" . . . no, he told me I was really good at "engaging the sitter" and explained how he noticed I asked them questions, paid attention, and had a good conversation with most everyone. I took that as a HUGE compliment--as those skills were essentially the most valuable things in his tool belt, as a trade show rep. It's a scientific fact that trade show floors contain the highest percentage of feigned interest in the known universe.

One of my favorite Bill Nye quotes.
I'm actually really lucky--I don't have to fake it. People are friggin' interesting! And anyone who has worked in a field long enough to be attending a trade show is usually a pretty deep reservoir of knowledge. Knowledge that you don't have. I'm also really lucky in that I can talk while I draw (in fact, it feels like it helps me draw). Some artists prefer to be quiet, and some have real trouble conversing while they're trying to caricature someone. If your hand automatically stops moving whenever you talk, that's a sign that you have trouble in this department--but it's an ability you can improve over time. Just like eventually new drivers get comfortable enough with the workings of the car to be able to fiddle with the radio or windows and still keep the vehicle under control.

Eye love opthalmology conferences! features these neat little segments called AMAs (short for Ask-Me-Anything). Someone who, say, works in Antarctica, or spent time in the mafia, or is a circus trapeze artist, or has a rare disease, offers themselves up for an online interview, and redditors submit questions and hope they get lucky enough to have their question rise to the top of the list. It's fascinating. Well, working a trade show is like having a really long AMA with tons of experts where you get to be the one to ask all the questions. I have had an older veteran describe how he was shot out of a navy helicopter and fished out of the ocean hours later. I got to ask a healthcare lawyer questions about the Affordable Care Act (which she wisely prefaced with "this is NOT legal advice, but . . . "). I've gotten expert opinions from dentists and eye doctors about how to keep healthy teeth and eyes. I've talked with veterinarians about my dog's allergies. I've discussed bigfoot rumors with lumberjacks and got to hear about how dangerous trees can really be (from a guy who was put into a coma by a splintering trunk and lived to tell the tale). I've heard prison guards complain about what it's like to have human feces thrown at you as a regular part of your job. I got to draw one of the guys who sells beef to McDonald's, and we had a good laugh about the online memes that suggest fast-food meat is somehow not meat (he assured me he didn't have plastic or styrofoam cows, they were, in fact, made of meat). I met an older guy who used to work with G. Gordon Liddy and got to hear about Watergate from an insider's perspective. And I got a welding lesson once from a company that develops arc-welding technology (they assured me their insurance wouldn't mind, they were having everyone mess with the machinery).

Just like your mom told you when you were six, if you want to know something, ask someone. And at trade shows, you're dealing with experts who know what they're talking about. It's like a really great search-engine filter, except it's in real life. 


GIMMIE!!! I mean, uh, are you giving those away?
Do you mind if I take one, thanks!
I've saved the best for last. Aaaaaaah, swag and candy. These adults in casual business attire are all carrying around convention bags for a reason. Those bags are getting filled with goodies. Most of the goodies I could care less about: logo-emblazoned pencils, yo-yos, keychains, drink coozies, stress balls . . . yawn. But I've come across some really amazing little trinkets that are offered as giveaways at these events (none as awesome as caricatures, but still, not too shabby). Some booths give away handfuls of candy, there's always one brewing espresso for the passersby that need some caffeine, and I've picked up tri-colored highlighter pens, flashlights, swiss army knives, glasses-repair kits, sample bags of doggie treats, playing cards, you name it. 

Some shows have a bit of down-time while people are in meetings, and the vendors on the trade show floor mill around and check everyone else out. I've drawn plenty of folks who ended up being vendors--and then they surprise me by popping back later and saying "hey, thanks for the drawing, here, take one of these!" as they hand me a cool little bauble from their booth a few rows over. 

Now, you can't just run around willy-nilly grabbing treats. I restrain myself from that kind of behavior. At least on the first day! I'm there to work, after all, and I cannot let my baser hunter-gatherer instincts override my professionalism. But the thing about a lot of trade shows is they are temporary communities. At the end of the show, all that stuff has to be packed up and shipped back to company headquarters. And if the trade show reps had fifty boxes of swag items to give out and they only managed to hand out forty-five boxes worth, they are trying REALLY hard by the end of the day to unload the rest of it so they don't have to toss it into the trash. I was once handed two five-pound cases of shortbread cookies with logos iced onto them. The kids got pretty tired of getting those in their lunch boxes, let me tell you. On the last day of a snack food expo, I was urged by the client to go trick-or-treating after my time was up, and I walked away with three loaded bags of granola bars, cracker sandwiches, snack chips, cookies, jerky, popcorn, dried fruits, nuts, and full-sized containers of brown sugar and vanilla syrup. And it's a win-win: I was getting free groceries, and they were happily giving it all away because they didn't want to ship anything back that was nonessential.  

So, enjoy your trade shows, people. There are so many reasons to!


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