Show time!

Innovation, competition and personalities on display

Paul Epp

I have been going to trade shows for a long time. As a product designer, I’m especially interested in products, and trade shows offer the most intense new-product-immersion experience there is. The shows I go to, furniture, interiors, architecture, lighting, equipment, boats, autos and so on, usually have a design element to them. Design doesn’t necessarily drive these markets, but it definitely plays a role. And the design element is my element.

I went to my first show as a design student and my last one only a short while ago. I’ve gone to shows in many places in North America, Europe and Asia, and I imagine I’ll keep going as long as I can. I actually remember that first show more clearly than the more recent ones. They do start to resemble each other at some point along the way. But some of us remain committed. I recall seeing the same designers, my senior colleagues, at show after show, as they got frailer and greyer, and further removed from the action. Now I guess that’s me too.

What do I get out of them? The principal benefit is the opportunity and even the requirement to look at things more closely. It’s like an ongoing informal critique. The proximity of the booths allows for an immediate comparison and that’s probably why trade shows remain a marketing force in our current era of on-line shopping. We get to compare the market’s various iterations, sit in the chair, flick the switch, query the staff and have a real experience rather than only a virtual one.

Much of what is shown closely resembles other competing products. That’s kind of how markets work. The most successful product is copied, and other choices fade away. There are usually a few exhibitors, and usually the smaller ones, who are trying something new, hoping to hit that home run, and then, inevitably and regrettably, being copied in turn. Some companies distinguish themselves through a focus on design, others on service, others on price, as it has always been.

When I was a child, the inter-school track meets were the occasion to see and be seen. They were exhilarating and exciting. And with greater luck, a visit to the county fair gave a broader experience. This is when a community gathers both to celebrate and to learn. Individual markets are also a community. When we get together it’s kind of exciting and we tend to make a bit of an effort. We may dress up and we may adopt a more positive and outgoing persona. Even we introverts act less that way. We’re on display, even as attendees. And that can make for pretty good people-watching. There will be a mix of characters: the hard-nosed businessmen, the fast-talking salespeople, the deliberately anonymous, the young and beautiful, all playing their parts.

I’ve participated from almost every angle. I’ve been an attendee, of course, as well as an exhibitor. I’ve been media and I’ve been a juror. I’ve been a featured speaker and I’ve won awards (and been passed over, too). I’ve done the I&D (installation and dismantle) myself and I’ve even been threatened with violence by show staff. I’ve designed a lot of booths and some of the show strategies. I’ve helped produce shows as a board member. I’ve dealt with customs and brokers and government departments, while participating in other countries. I’ve hired staff and let them go. I think I’ve had the full experience.

Are the shows worth it? That is usually a tough question. As an exhibitor, there is seldom the immediate gratification of a sale and as an attendee, of a purchase. But it is exposure and if you’re not known, or don’t know, then how or when is there eventually going to be a transaction? That’s the pragmatic answer. Another one is that these shows are also a celebration of the community they represent. And that’s important too, even if it’s hard to find on a balance sheet.

Now, I make a point of encouraging and applauding the new companies. I’m very gratified to see these young people taking the risks and putting in all the big work to be a player, however small, in a market. It’s never easy and without youth and its naiveté, new things would not get done and I’m sure glad they are.

Show me!

Paul Epp is an emeritus professor at OCAD University, and former chair of its Industrial Design department.

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