Peter Graves, Booth Scrounge and the Mission Impossible

"Bring me back some Mardi Gras beads. Or a yo-yo. Or food. Or socks. Or a glass of wine."

Those were the marching orders to my colleague, Lars. And as the words escaped my lips and I watched his broad retreating back, I'd realized; only at a tradeshow could you request items of that level of diversity all at the same time.

"How about a stapler?... A golf club?... One of those little hotdogs wrapped in pastry?... An elephant.... A t-shirt reading 'Year 2000 Programmers Do It on Dates?'"

All was equally possible in the bright, shining world of Booth Scrounge.

Yes, for anyone who's ever worked a tradeshow booth, you know how it goes. You can be bitter rivals with another company, fighting it out tooth-and-nail for every lead. Ready to slash tires, kidnap grandmothers and slander favorite pets to get that extra competitive edge.

But when it comes to Booth Scrounge-- giveaway treasures like logo-imprinted stressballs, T-shirts, solar calculators, and bobbleheads-- things you'll take great care stowing in your luggage on the ride home so it can gather dust in your attic for the next decade-- why, the deep primal drive to Hunt and Gather supersedes all company loyalties...

And you cheerily approach your sworn enemies in an unspoken d├ętante to exchange brand-emblazed mechanical pencils for magnetic chip clips.

It's an evolutionary need bigger than us. We are incapable of Swag Resistance.

For a number of years, I was the event planner for these shows. My job was to first make sure everything got there and was in its place... Then stand for eight to 12 hours a day straight, smile at people, hand out literature, and pretend I knew what I was talking about.

This meant that while the sales reps were wandering around free-range, meeting folks, making deals and even savoring daylight, I was seeing the back of the same event coordinator's head at the booth perpendicular to mine. As he stood there smiling, handing out literature, and pretending he knew what he was talking about.

It was a unifier between those skilled in my field.

Food sometimes involved brief planned lunches. But usually it involved whatever hors d'ouvres hired booth babes named Autumn and Fawn were out passing around, whatever I could pick-pocket from the promotional bags of potential customers when they weren't looking, and the occasional glass of wine one of our reps would retrieve for me.

Nothing like booth-tending and talking technology you don't quite understand with a couple of glasses of wine sloshing around in an empty stomach, let me tell ya.

"Wwwwwanna hear 'bout the Year Two-Thouuusshhhand problem, missshhter? Do I have some shhhoftware fer you!"

Anyway, my coworker Lars was a friend of mine, and pretty good about bringing me back tokens from the outside world to prove it still existed. So I had been fairly confident that he would, at the very least, retrieve me the wine, some nibblies, and the Mardi Gras beads I'd been coveting from a booth three aisles over.

It seemed like he was gone awhile, but then again, you tend to lose your sense of time when you spend hours on your feet under fluorescent lights staring at the same person's cowlick. Seasons could turn. Wars could start and end. The Pittsburgh Pirates could win the World Series.

Okay, well, not that last one. But those other things. Definitely.

And as summer slipped into fall and I was still standing there, I thought, in my nutrient-deprived brain, that I had started to hear the "Mission Impossible" theme.

Yes, Lalo Schifrin's catchy 60s television tune, ba-da-daaaaa, ba-da-daaaaaa, ba-da-daaaaing it's way into my consciousness.

I wasn't sure it was real or not. Delirium from the past three days had set in. But deciding that it was probably no stranger than the guy dressed as a caveman, passing out caveman's club rock-candy lollipops I saw earlier, I thought little more about it.

Until Lars popped his blond head around a corner, motioning and hissing at me, "Peter Graves, Peter Graves..."

My brain was still stuck on the fact Lars didn't seem to be carrying any Mardi Gras beads or tiny quiches. What had he been doing all this time if it wasn't out pilfering quality tradeshow tat-- Actually selling stuff?


"Mission Impossible," he said.

"Yes, I heard it."

"Jim Phelps," he told me.

"Is this some sort of booth trivia game?"

"Peter Graves," he insisted, and then vanished around the corner as suddenly as he'd appeared.

Well, there wasn't a single other one of our sales reps around for miles-- they'd vanished like migrating birds the moment they'd landed. And technically, we were not to leave the booth unmanned. (Or unwomaned in my case.)

But after a moment, as I wrenched my mind from the fact Lars still hadn't brought me any food and I was beadless, I decided I had just make the step out of our 10-by-10 and into No Man's Land.

First I saw Lars, standing around in a crowd with others. And before them, sitting on a stool at a booth and brandishing a microphone, was actor Peter Graves of Mission Impossible fame.

He was telling some sort of tale, presumably MI-related and, I imagine, connecting it in some grand metaphor to our competitor's Year 2000 software.

"See?" whispered Lars to me with a self-satisfied nod. "You thought I was making it up."

I hadn't thought, actually. My brainpower had died by hour six on Day Two.

What I did notice, however, was that on a table near the esteemed actor before us were a pile of mardi gras beads, a glass of wine, and a plate of flaky, savory hors d'oevres.

And that's when I realized. "The only Mission Impossible around here is getting something to eat," I whispered back. I shook my head at Lars, at the presentation, at the giant room of freedom and, apparently, a snack bar-- and hastened back to the captivity of our 10X10 where potential clients were now standing, helping themselves to literature and t-shirts.

Salesmen and actors: feh!...

At least the guy dressed as the Caveman had brought candy.

I was reminded of this tale by the recent unfortunate death of actor Peter Graves. Which is a loss, but at least it probably wasn't brought about by working on the tradeshow circuit without food.


Anonymous said...

I was wondering how you were going to tie Peter Graves into all this...and you never cease to amaze and astonish. It flowed so naturally and probably will be the best tribute, well, of sorts ;), to him that I will see all day. Thanks for starting my morning off on the right foot.

Jenn Thorson said...

UnfinishedDude- This morning I saw that he'd died and then remembered, "Hey, I saw Peter Graves once!"

And I did end up getting a great dinner after we shut down for the evening. Seafood crepes-- yum! :)

Glad you enjoyed the post.

Babs-beetle said...

Oh how I hate being trapped at a stand and having to rely on other people for food, or not!

It was much the same with our puppet theatre. The only difference was we were at real fun events, and missed all the action too.

Jenn Thorson said...

Babs- I think it's probably worse if it would be an otherwise fun event and you still don't get to be a part of it. At least it wasn't like I was missing out on grand entertainment most of the time. And I did get to see Penn and Teller perform once, because they shut down the booth area for everyone to go.

Jaffer said...

I love going to trade shows - especially when I am the one 'shopping'.
Every year I see a calculator or a pen designed to work differently - and because I am an Industrial Designer myself and I can very well steal those ideas.

"Oh you make Combines you say ... I should say that is a cool looking calculator there... must have for every we are not looking to buy a combine...but can I have the calculator..."

Jenn Thorson said...

Jaffer- Heh, yes, I vividly recall the tactic! At least for you, you could consider it product research. :)

nipsy said...

Ha!! Very well written, except I cannot believe you didn't at least snag some of his snacks before retreating back to your wall home..

I do so love trade shows though, and the massive amounts of "trinkets" I make the kids grab now instead of myself..

Surfie said...

Oh, and don't forget the Runner's Expos that they have for two days prior to most marathons! They have all kinds of awesome stuff there. My favorite at the Myrtle Beach Marathon last year was the Chick-fil-A booth where they were giving out free coupons. Free food! Score! Plus they had this big wheel you could spin to win other prizes like a Chick-fil-A calendar, free food, and some other items.

Jenn Thorson said...

Nipsy- Heh, I can just see it now-- my waving at Peter Graves, snatching his plate of nibblies and hot-footing it back to my booth.

Now I'm sorry I didn't think of it! :)

Surfie- Oh, wow, none of us had anything like THAT-- that would have been a score! I did get an amazing amount of mousepads, t-shirts (perfect for weekends working around the house), slinkies, laser lights, keychains.... all sorts of goodies.

Oh, and I did eventually get my Mardi Gras beads. I didn't even have to flash anybody for them.

Beer Drinker Rob said...

I've been to tons of the events you described. I liked them most when companies like Coors and Diageo and Starbucks and Hersheys were also exhibiting, for obvious reasons.

But I was like everyone else, grabbing tons of T-shirts (that ended up being nightwear for my wife) and I swear this to you: over the years, I gathered so many of those mini toys shaped as fruits and vegetables, I have a complete basket cornucopia of them.

Maybe I'll take a picture if I can find them all.

Jenn Thorson said...

Beer Drinker- I know just what you're talking about regarding the fruit and veg, and a whole basket of them has to be pretty funny. Each, I'm sure, with it's own individual logo on it!

Anonymous said...

there were bobbleheads????

yes, my brain honed in on that and I had to reread the post again because my mind ket saying 'bobbleheads"
I am too easily sidetracked by shiny objects :)
I liked this story and was very glad to read that you did indeed get your beads and wine.

Jenn Thorson said...

Floormodel- Yeah, I think so but, you know, I can't recall what they were of. I didn't get one myself, but as I recall they were only giving them out sparingly.

I am enjoying how many folks seem to totally understand the tradeshow experience and the joys of picking up swag from the vendors. I sort of wasn't expecting this enthusiastic a response!

Beer Drinker Rob said...

Besides the onsite booze and beer, I picked up 4 Delta umbrellas one year, which are all still in use. I also picked up about 100 AA batteries from two competitors which didn't last as long as you think with 2 kids.

What I've never been able to force myself to do was wait in line for something, not even the rolling backpack.

And it's absolutely the best when the shows are local and your car is in the parking garage, and you can "double shop" dropping the first bag when it's full, etc!

Jenn Thorson said...

Beer Drinker- Ah, a tradeshow pro in our midst! :) I only suspected.

screwdestiny said...

"We are incapable of Swag Resistance."

That is SO true!

Deray said...

In my case I go to science-related trade shows every month or so. Even though I don't actually made decisions on what to buy for the lab, I pretend I do and run away with plushies of elephants wearing a lab coat or a vampire tech, magnetic clips, tons of pens and post-its. T-shirts are a super price though, jajajajaja.

Jen said...

I was once one of those sales people. I always came back with the greatest stuff. I will never have to buy another tension ball as long as I live. I have jump ropes, staplers, pens and magnetic clips. I never saw anyone there of any importance like Peter Graves however.

Unknown said...

ScrewDestiny- Much like tacky souvenir choices, in tradeshow context, these items really do seem to take on their own special glow.

Deray- Vampire tech? In PLUSH? Your tradeshows are much cooler than mine were. Lucky girl!

Jen- Jump ropes-- that's a new one to me! Though I can totally see reps testing them out at their booths during slow times.