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The Worst Trade Show Ever

Why CHA is no longer in Chicago in the Winter.

by Mike Hartnett (February 5, 2007)

The Chicago Bears making the Super Bowl reminded me of the worst HIA (now CHA) show in recent history. It was a perfect storm of disasters.

The year was 1986 and the show was held in Chicago. The show had been held in Chicago every year since its inception as a hobby-dominated association. A disastrous snowstorm had ruined the show a few years earlier, so the show had moved to various cities in the Sun Belt.

As time went by craft companies comprised the majority HIA members, but the board of directors was still dominated by manufacturers of plastic model kits, model railroads, and radio-controlled cars. As the show became less and less successful for them, they decided to try Chicago again, as if returning to the city of past success would rekindle the good old days.

But thanks to the increase in craft exhibitors, the show had outgrown the hotels in which the show had been held, and was moved to McCormick Place beside Lake Michigan.

Problem #1. The weather. Many people from the Sun Belt did not have winter coats and those who did didn't remember how to dress. They froze every time they stepped out of their hotel rooms. During set-up the bay doors were kept open so booths could be brought in. In other words, no heat. The wind blew off the lake, through the bay doors, and froze everyone. There's a reason Chicago is called the "Windy City."

Problem #2. The unions. Craft companies in particular were used to non-union trade shows, where you could erect your booth and plug in your lights yourself. Not Chicago. Exhibitors were paying as much as $35 for an electrician to take an extension cord and plug it into an outlet.

Problem #3. The Bears. The show opened on Super Bowl Sunday, and the Bears won. That night most show attendees were trapped in their hotel rooms because streets were blocked off to accommodate riotous Bear fans.

Problem #4. McCormick Place. The HIA show was held on one floor, while a gift show was happening on another floor. Both shows closed each day at the same time, so thousands of tired show-goers streamed out of McCormick Place together. At the time, the layout of McCormick Place did not allow for numerous shuttle busses or taxis to be waiting at the curb. Tired attendees had to wait in the cold as long as 40 minutes for their bus.

Problem #5. The Shuttle. Tuesday morning I walked onto the show floor about 15 minutes after the show had started and there was dead silence. A few exhibitors had televisions in their booth so they could watch the Super Bowl. Every one was huddled around the tv's, watching replays of the shuttle, the Challenger, exploding. Virtually no business was conducted that day.

Other disasters.

That wasn't the only trade show with problems. Craft World, at one time the dominant distributor, held an Expo in Kansas City that was just like a trade show. Except the buyers didn't attend. The show was so empty, and the exhibitors so bored by the last day, that some vendors were conducting sexually explicit make-it/take-its in their booth. You took an unfinished wooden bracelet and then you painted.... uh ... and then you took two pom poms and glued ... oh never mind.

The last few Ben Franklin shows were similar. At one, bored exhibitors set up a miniature golf course in the aisles to pass the time. There was even time to conduct a tournament.

Then there was the needlework show held in a hotel that was also the site a show for the pornographic film industry. So the knitters and crocheters were sharing the elevators and coffee shop with uh, movie stars.

P.S. I just returned home to Illinois from Anaheim. As I write this, the wind chill is 20 degrees below zero. Imagine if the CHA show was still held in Chicago?

(Note: To read previous Kate's Collage articles, click on the titles in the right-hand column. Have a trade show horror story? Send your tale of woe to CLN at mike@clnonline.com.)



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