How to Survive a Trade Show

I don’t think there’s anyone in the jewelry industry who doesn’t feel at least a little bit of dread at the thought of a trade show. To me, the experience is much like eating green beans: They’re good for me in the end, but the process itself isn’t so pleasing. Along with a week of successful buying, selling, networking, and learning, trade shows also offer buyers and sellers alike an unwanted bonus: sore feet, legs, and backs; the dreaded weight gain from endless cocktail parties, dinners, and “show food”; the headaches and fatigue of irregular sleep patterns; and, often, the myriad mystery symptoms that are actually signs of dehydration. While these often are accepted as necessary evils of the business, a little diligence can go a long way toward avoiding trade show syndrome. Here are my survival tactics:

Watch your back. If your back’s not happy, you won’t be either, so it pays to pay attention to the state of your spine.

Ditch that heavy bag. As buyers, editors, or anyone else walking the show floor knows, there’s no end to the amount of paper you’re offered over the course of a trade show. As the pounds add up, a bag—especially an over-the-shoulder bag—can wreak havoc on the back. Suggestions: Politely decline anything except vital information. Carry a small notebook for jotting down notes. At the end of each day, be ruthless—throw out everything but the absolute essentials. And if you’re the type who hates to toss anything that might someday be useful, swap the shoulder bag for a balanced backpack to help distribute the weight.

At the end of the show, if you have material to bring home, ship it. If you’d rather carry it with you, always pack it in a suitcase with wheels.

Remember your posture. Think about those military rules—shoulders back, chest out, stomach in. This stance allows your abdominals to offer lower back support and keeps your back aligned to prevent other unpleasant pain in shoulders or even legs.

Rest your back and wiggle your toes . Do this for five minutes at least once an hour as you regroup mentally and review your attack on the show floor. It may seem like there’s not enough time in the day to accomplish all that must be done, but allowing yourself regular breaks is an exercise in preventive medicine for physical and mental fatigue. If you feel like you don’t have time, remember that you’ll be more reasonable and rational in your end-of-day business judgments if you aren’t feeling achy and cranky. If you end a day feeling especially fatigued, remember that most hotels offer a massage service. Be good to yourself: After all that work, you’ve earned the right to splurge.

Living hand-to-mouth. Eating at trade shows is literally a piece o’ cake, right? Following the easy route means grabbing a Danish and coffee in the morning, snacking on candy at each booth all day, munching on free hors d’oeuvres and wine at cocktail parties, and dining late at night. The results include weight gain, erratic highs and lows from sugar and caffeine, and general stomach discomfort.

Healthful food may be scarce, but it is possible to find. Oatmeal or yogurt and juice will keep you from an early sugar high and subsequent crash. For lunch and snacks, if you see fruit—grab it. An apple, orange, or banana is a far better option than a bag of chips for an afternoon snack. Make a conscious effort, meanwhile, to forego mindlessly munching on the oh-so-tempting candy sitting on the counters of so many booths.

At lunchtime, opt for a salad or even a sandwich, and ignore the urge for fatty burgers or fries. Throughout the day, revive yourself with water instead of soda. If you must drink something sweet, opt for juice—it’s still full of sugar but at least it has vitamins, too. Beyond the first jolt in the morning, avoid coffee and other caffeinated drinks throughout the day to avoid headaches, grouchiness, tension, and dehydration. Also, try to avoid eating too much salty food (sodium causes water retention that can lead to swollen legs and feet) and drinking alcohol to excess. Go with water at the cocktail parties, and save the wine for dinner.

Don’t mistreat your feet. Aching feet, legs, and backs find quick relief in the simplest remedy: comfortable shoes. I have a colleague who wears running shoes or other highly cushioned sneakers during the shows. He smiles smugly each evening as the rest of us wince at the thought of walking to the next event or even standing in the endless taxi lines. But for those of us (yes, I’m part of this group) who resign ourselves to chronic pain rather than wear a really great suit with a pair of Nikes, there is hope.

Always choose shoes with support. A warning for women: Strappy sandals, skinny four-inch heels, and barely-there mules may be all the rage in fashion, but they’re a sure source of pain on the trade show floor. Flats are an evil in disguise, offering no arch or heel support for feet on thinly veiled concrete floors. Aim for a moderate heel, preferably one on the thicker rather than thinner side. Arch and heel supports are vital. If your favorite shoes don’t offer them, try a supportive insert. Finally, take a moment at the end of the day to soak your feet. They’ll thank you for it.

Three simple suggestions. Remember these cardinal rules of trade show survival:

  • Manage your time by not overbooking yourself. Decide ahead of time what you must do, what you’d like to do, and what you can do without.

  • Never deprive yourself of sleep. Mapping out a plan of attack (for example, grouping vendors by location at the show) can save you valuable time as well as wear-and-tear on your feet.

  • Drink water. And when you’re done, drink some more, even if you don’t feel thirsty. At any show, but especially in Las Vegas, your body is being depleted of water by the hot, dry atmosphere. And it’s easy to forget to replenish your water supplies while dashing around the show all day. The effects of dehydration range from bloating (it’s not just thehors d’oeuvres that are preventing you from buttoning your pants) to irritability, lethargy, and nausea.