NAB Convention Tips from a Veteran

March 25, 2009

As I was making travel plans for the upcoming NAB convention in Las Vegas, I was reminded of my first NAB almost 15 years ago. It was probably the fact I booked a room at the same hotel as my first NAB trip. I thought back over the years and the shows, the people, the experiences and all the things I had learned. Not only things I had learned about technology but also about myself as an engineer and as a professional. The biggest thing I learned though was how to get around the convention. Let's face it, 15 years ago the convention was huge. Today "huge" is an understatement.

The convention halls were smaller and you primarily had the Radio Hall, which coincidentally has now grown in size several times over but is still the Radio Hall. In the South Hall (now Central) was the Television Hall. Sure there were radio items here, but this was where the TV people were looking at the newest helicopters, news trucks, cameras, graphics packages and studio lighting systems. And there was a small display of satellite trucks and mobile production trucks in front of the Las Vegas Convention Center. It's still the Television Hall but it's larger, has more vendors and is a daylong stop on the way to the even larger Multimedia Hall. Today the Multimedia Hall houses Microsoft, Sun and a who's who of Silicon Valley and the computer industry.

We have radio, television, satellite, Internet, software and everything you can imagine that provides support services and hardware for those branches of the business. The Las Vegas Convention Center has grown several times over in size. And there are still the sessions both at the convention center as well as the Hilton next door. The show is also a meeting place for not only the NAB but also the SBE, RTNDA as well as several other smaller groups and group meetings for many companies.

Remembering back to my first trip to the NAB I was reminded of how much of a novice I was at the time. I'm by no means a pro at getting around but after nearly 15 conventions, I do ok I think. It got me thinking, "I wish someone would have told me…" before I got there. I thought that maybe my mistakes and successes over the years might be helpful to new attendees. So here are a few suggestions from someone who's been around the floor at least a couple of times.

Dress successfully
Bring a couple of pair of comfortable shoes. You're going to be walking. Just walking from one end of the show to the other will put a few miles on your favorite shoes. Factor in about a thousand stops as you move from booth to booth and hall to hall and you're going to leave the show feeling like you have just completed a marathon each day. Maybe more if you arrive for the weekend sessions.

Dress business casual at least. You will interact with your peers and people that some day may be your boss or you may be their boss. I know a lot of guys wear suits while perusing the show floor. That's great if you wear a suit on a regular basis. If you don't wear a suit on a regular basis, that's fine too but at least look nice. You're there representing not only fellow engineers but also your employer. You never know who you're going to run into. One of the first shows I went to I ended up standing next to the vice president of engineering for a large radio company. Being a young, starry eyed engineer from Fort Wayne, IN, I was in awe of the caliber of people that I was interacting with and no one judged me because I was the new kid. Be prepared to interact with some of the smartest and brightest people in the business. You never know when opportunity may strike.

Don't be afraid to interact with others at the exhibits. One of the prime missions everyone should take to the show outside of viewing the exhibits is to gain new friends and acquaintances and to share ideas and knowledge. Let's face it; the NAB is a huge opportunity for an open exchange of information with your peers. It's why you are there. Never be afraid to ask questions and take notes. Collect business cards and have a large stack to give out. Even if you have to make your own, have something to leave with that person you spent 20 minutes discussing the merits of a new piece of equipment or a new idea. We're in this together, I want to remember your name but I'm going to meet as many people as you do, I can't remember everyone's names so give me something as a reminder.

As I said earlier, getting around the floor has gotten more difficult as the show has grown. There are several theories as to the best method to see everything. Personally, I have certain manufacturers I see on the first day. These are the manufacturers of equipment I currently own; I'm looking for product updates to see what the newest version looks like and what they have that might directly integrate with hardware/software I currently have from them. I'm also renewing the face to face connections of friends and getting a general sense of the show. The other days I'm moving through items that I have seen advertised and made a list of that I'd like to put my hands on and see what the hype is about.

I've also seen people come with a mapped out plan for the entire trip that will take them through the show on a strict schedule. There's nothing wrong with having a plan either. The NAB has a great online tool to help you plan your visit. If you're not sure how to approach getting around the show, pick a method and use it. It will take you time to develop your own method. Worst case is next year you try something new!

Don't be afraid if you break something. I've always felt that if the manufacturers brings it to the floor and lets me play with it, it had better work. I've broken a few items over the years. Software has bugs, hardware doesn't have quite all the functions the final production version will have and the sales people aren't completely trained on how it's supposed to work anyway. Push buttons, flip switches, turn knobs and turn things on and off. See what happens, after all, you're evaluating a product that you may want to purchase in the future. You have a right to try it out. I will add the disclaimer here that I am NOT advocating trying to break things. Just don't be afraid of trying things out. Sooner or later you'll have your own story of something you tried at the show and it failed. (These are the fun stories that you will share with fellow engineers over dinners after the show closes for the evening.)

From a vendor's standpoint, this is a chance for them to get our input on their new products. It's ok to offer constructive criticism; after all, you're the one that might be purchasing it in the future. If you'd like to see a feature, ask for it. Just be prepared to give a detailed description of what you're looking for and why and to explain how it would apply to your needs. Asking for a red switch is pointless unless there's a distinct reason for why you need it there and why it needs to be red.

At least once during your stay, eat in the cafeteria in the convention center. Around lunch time it's always packed. Tables are scarce. Try to sit next to someone you don't know, if they seem like they might be open to it. Introduce yourself and ask how the show is going for them. Engage them in conversation about what they have seen and what they have been impressed with at the show and then add it to your list of things to see.

It should go without saying but it needs to be said anyway: Keep your eyes open. Look at name badges. Like I said, you never know who you might run into. Put names with faces and call them by name if you get a chance to introduce yourself. Keep your badge with your name showing so I know who you are.

Seek out other engineers from your company. If you belong to a group, find out who all is going before you leave home. See if you can plan on meeting them at the show. Having someone with your similar point of reference as to how your group works makes you and them an instant connection. If you're on your own, don't fear that's not bad either. By the end of the show, you will have made a few new friends. Next year is a new year and a new show, seek those new friends out and see if you can spend a few hours walking the floor together.

Don't forget, this is Las Vegas, go out and see the city and have some fun along the way. There will be dinners, hospitality suites and parties both small and large that will include vendors, other engineers and possibly spouses of all the above. Deals are made and business is conducted at all times of the day and where it's done is not limited to the convention center. Again, don't forget to get to know the people you're with, learn something about them outside of work. Often spouses and significant others attend the show and will be at the dinners or out for fun after the show. Don't be afraid to get to know them either.
Have a great show! I'll see you there!

Kramer is director of engineering for Reach Media/Tom Joyner Morning Show, Dallas.

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