contributed by Fiona Worboys [aspiring designer / amateur photojournalist / established traveler]
With more than 1200 exhibitors spread over 4.4 million square feet, the NeoCon World’s Trade Fair, held June 13–15 in Chicago , was an enormous candy store for the interior design student. However, negotiating such an event can be more than a little overwhelming. As a veteran student attendee (this was my third year), I’ve decided to share what I learned about how to make an event like this a great learning opportunity.
Prior to going to a trade show, it’s a good idea to find out what the focus will be (commercial / residential / hospitality / etc). Then make sure you pre-register to avoid standing in line on the first day (you can get all the information you need for NeoCon at www.merchandisemart.com). Also, don’t forget to look up the seminars (especially free ones!) or events you would like to attend so you can plan your agenda. I was especially keen to attend the Student Day on Wednesday, but also knew I would need time to check out brands and products that particularly interested me. NeoCon always showcases exciting new product launches, which are wonderful to see firsthand, so I built in an extra day for just that.
Once in Chicago, my first stop was to meet with my interior design mentor, Jay Timmons Allied ASID, a local commercial designer. Finding an approachable contact within the industry has proven extremely beneficial. I strongly recommend that fellow students seek out a person they can identify with, someone who can help guide them with advice and encouragement through the difficult transition from student to professional.
Plan Of Attack
The next day, ready to tackle the show, I ventured into the Chicago Merchandise Mart. Having a plan of attack was essential — there was certainly not enough time to see everything. I picked up a printed guide and spent the first half hour with a coffee, making a note of exhibit locations I really wanted to see. With 18 floors and a legendary demand for elevators, the show required a methodical approach (not to mention a shot of caffeine).
Jeanne Mercer Ballard and Tim Dolan, of Appalachian State University, presented a useful lecture entitled “Navigating NeoCon” as part of the Student Day events. Summarizing their suggested “survival strategies for the mountain” (a rather apt phrase) at this point seems like a good idea. Here are the options they advocated.
- Start at the summit — Work your way down from the top using the stairs to save valuable time. This will give you a flavor of everything on offer.
- The green trail — NeoCon has an accompanying green guide that provides a good way of focusing your attention on environmentally-friendly products and services.
- Sherpa solution — Take advantage of any tours on offer. This is a great way to start out, particularly for your first show, and it allows you to see the show through the eyes of a professional.
- The best views — Focus on the “Best of” awards, giving you the benefit of industry experts’ opinions.
- Monument tour — Identify the showrooms that carry historical design pieces so you can view them (and try them out) in person.
- Master climbers — Events such as Meet the Presidents can be an excellent way to do some high-profile networking and gain additional information.
- Trail mix — If you are completely mercenary (or just plain broke!), you can always make a route out of those showrooms with food and giveaways.
Once you’ve decided which method of approach works best for you, be sure you know what you want from each port of call. Do you have a particular question you’d like answered” Do you want to check out a certain product up close” It’s easy to become bemused or sidetracked by all the amazing displays—or just lost in the crowds! Keeping focused is key, although you may want to deviate from your chosen course for a particularly interesting find.
Also, think carefully about what information you really need, and collect wisely. Manufacturers and suppliers produce literature and samples in the hope that they’ll get business from them. Taking brochures just because they’re there is not particularly helpful to the exhibitors, kind on the environment, or friendly to your back (anyone who has staggered around a show with free bags stuffed full of brochures will know exactly what I mean).
When you reach one of your destinations, be confident, introduce yourself, and politely ask for help if you need it. Remember, as students, we’re the future of the profession and an intelligent exhibitor will recognize that we’re a prospective client. I’ve always been treated courteously while at NeoCon, and appreciate the time these busy representatives have afforded me. Also, don’t forget to say thanks and to request a business card — following up with a thank-you e-mail or a related question can be a good way to establish contact and gain further information.
Remember, don’t be too ambitious about what you can achieve in one day. A full 9–5 can be rather intense, and you’ll find you don’t remember what you saw where, especially when your mind is on why you wore those cute but extremely uncomfortable shoes! Take regular breaks and keep early nights to be ready for your next day.
Student Day Specifics
Student Days are a huge benefit of trade shows such as NeoCon. Here, high-profile speakers and other industry professionals are available just for us. This year’s program (sponsored by Herman Miller) proved valuable as ever. Keynote speaker Paul Manno, IIDA, kicked off the day with a talk on “Creating A Culture Of Design.” I was particularly struck by several points: the essential nature of collaborative culture (design is all the better when working with other people), and the concept that design and change travel on the same road (we should always strive to better ourselves and not merely repeat our past work). Such insights from respected industry professionals are a wonderful learning opportunity often found only outside the classroom.
The Student Day also encompassed an ASID Career Exchange. Representatives from such leading firms as Gensler, Mary Cook & Associates, and GHK provided information on their companies and careers within them. Our very own PLiNTH & CHiNTZ was among them, with Laura McDonald, ASID / IIDA, and Amy Johnson spreading the word on this fab resource.
As part of the ASID Career Exchange, we had the opportunity to have our résumés and portfolios reviewed by professionals. Although daunting at first, this is the type of resource that is incredibly beneficial to seek out as a student. I took the opportunity to have several interior designers look over my portfolio, and was happy to receive some great suggestions. Because different firms prefer different formats or project emphases, the more people you talk to, the better informed decisions you can make. It will also give you the chance to practice verbally presenting your designs, an art form itself.
After a snack on the go (Tip: be sure to have a few cereal bars in your bag — you won’t have time to stop), I decided to take advantage of the IIDA Docent Program, another student-focused event. Here I joined Laura McDonald’s showroom tour, which had been carefully planned to take in a variety of suppliers: Keilhauer, Decca, Maharam, Knoll, and Atlas. At each showroom, a representative generously took the time to give a background on their company, show us their range of products, and answer questions. This was very useful as we were introduced to some new suppliers and given much more undivided attention than if we’d been working the show alone.
Work The Network
Networking is the most important part of attending any industry event, and NeoCon is no exception. Make a point of finding out who will be at an event ahead of time, and research what they do and what they have accomplished. Become involved in the industry, such as through participation in an ASID student chapter or IIDA campus center. These outlets provide many opportunities to meet your peers as well as people in the profession. I was thrilled to run into ASID staff and students from last year’s ”Chapter Leadership Conference,” held in Washington D.C., and also to meet with our chapter’s Professional Liaison, Mimi Moore, ASID. As you can see, the ASID Lounge had a lot more to offer than freebie notepads and pens!
The Chicago Merchandise Mart is also home to IIDA Headquarters, so I took the opportunity to drop by and meet with Erenn Ellermann (who I had worked with on the Student Advisory Council) and other head-office personnel. They’re always happy to hear student views and to get to know us better.
Remember, if you do see someone you recognize (name tag watching can be a productive pastime!), be sure to speak to them. It can be intimidating to walk up to the president of ASID at first, but you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how pleased people are that you bothered. Getting a positive reception from someone you admire in the industry definitely gives you a confidence boost. Having some simple business cards printed up can also be beneficial. I was asked for mine more than once and definitely felt more professional being able to produce it.
Attending a large design show need not be a daunting experience. With some research, a plan of attack, and a willingness to step outside your comfort zone and interact with the people around you, you’ll start to feel in control and actually enjoy the buzz of it all. Exploring what’s new in the industry, taking advantage of student events, and networking will all be huge benefits to your future design career and make you more marketable than the next student. Good luck!
Many thanks to everyone who helped make NeoCon such a great learning opportunity for us students, and to all those who gave up their time to talk with me.
Want to learn some helpful networking tips” Then be sure to check out the September 2004 YOU’RE HIRED! article, Networking A-Go-Go.