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We're Back! (A Trade Show Story)

It's hard to believe that 2021 is coming to a close. It feels like the last eleventy years just blended together, don't you think? Throughout most of 2020, my cats and I were hunkered down in my apartment, partaking of online trade shows: watching pre-recorded panels with live Q&A in a tiny chatbox, tabbing back and forth between booths, people, and regular work tasks, and trying to make some sense out of the fully digital landscape we were forced into. At this point I'm preaching to the choir, but man, the whole "completely online" thing did not go well at all.

Sanken Inc partook of two or three shows (which were utterly immemorable, except for the following) so as to not miss anything that might be on the table. Perhaps we imagined the existence of said table. Alas, while we were present and accounted for, it was a bit like talking (typing?) into a Westworld-like abyss. Were people on the other side of my screen actually there? Were they even real live people? I could send any number of messages to the folks who registered, but did they even bother to log in?

Unsurprisingly, those of us who made it to the online networking sessions were absolutely stir crazy. In an attempt to experiment with and learn the digital platforms, we found ourselves on the whiteboard letting out silliness we aren't generally afforded in the digital networking space.

While there is some respite in the off-camera sweat pants and general comforts of home, the topic on nearly everyone's brain was "When do we get back to in-person?" And so, we pondered that question for what seemed like an eternity. For me, it felt mostly like this:

That is to say, the first half of this year is mostly a mystery to me.


And so, August (Pre-Autumn here in the Midwest) of 2021 brought the return of human interaction, though not as glorious as it perhaps had been before COVID. Personally, I only attended one show pre-COVID, and that was MD&M West in Anaheim, and by that point the shutdowns in China were already on the horizon. Attendee numbers aren't necessarily what they used to be, faces are often still obscured by masks, and there is a feeling of trying to get your sea (sales?) legs back after so long. I'm an extrovert, but it amazed me how much of my energy was zapped by stopping and chatting through just one aisle of any one exhibit hall. Time flew by so fast, and I believe I have fellow humans to thank for that.

I feel very fortunate that I was able to attend a handful of in-person events this year. We still aren't able to put up a booth with international travel still being hectic, but just being able to walk around and see people? Worth it. So much is lost when we go digital: not being able to see things in action, or inspect a part up close, or simply have the sensory adventures while skimming aisles. We don't have organic conversations about what we do or where we're from, no read on body language or tone of voice, no sense of wonderment at the advancements of technology, or the sense of humor of employees that makes all of this professional stuff feel human.

My first return venture to the fray was in Schaumburg, where I connected with lots of Wisconsin-based manufacturers. While I've technically been in the business almost two years, I hesitate to say so since I haven't had that good ol' hands-on because of COVID. I feel like I'm just getting started now, and I still have so much to get a handle on.

I drove up to Minneapolis for MD&M earlier this month, and it was such a treat. You can't get free headshots through a virtual booth. I was startled to learn that someone remembered my name from a meeting they had with my boss. I stopped to record a video of this robotic troll, and then had a lovely conversation about international travel with the booth proprietor.

Again, the digital frontier is one that is very difficult for me, and I believe the industry overall. Networking is nearly impossible without some in-person element. What's my opening pitch to you online? "Wow, nice text icon you've got there, I see your name is alliterative!" Big. Pass. If I was lucky, you'd leave me on Read. With that in mind, it's been awesome to be back in person.


Beyond shows, I've finally been able to get my hands into the local manufacturing pie; I've visited 3 nearby factories and talked with the staff there, which means fresh insight as to what folks are doing and how they've been coping with the pandemic. There is a sense of comradery, though I'm not able to say if that was there just a few years ago. I am learning so much about the city I call home, now that there's some new lights giving me a different perspective.

Overall, it's been a bonkers year, and I can't believe the turnaround in regards to events. Going back to in-person shows has changed the game entirely, especially since I've spent more of my career online than I have around convention centers. What I can say for certain is that I will never go back to digital exhibit halls if I don't have to. At the end of the day, even with all the automation and AI, we still need that human element to get by.

I can't wait to see more of you in 2022, fellow humans! beepboop


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