I’m not normally overcome with emotion when attending tradeshows, but as I walked into the PPAI Expo show floor on the opening morning, I had to swallow hard. I looked around almost disbelieving the swarms of people filling the aisles. “They came,” I sighed softly, letting the satisfaction of that realization fill my mind. “They came.”
Despite the months of dire predictions about how hard the economy had hit our industry, PPAI members got in their cars and boarded planes, some traveled across the country or halfway around the world because they believed attending the industry’s largest and longest-running tradeshow was imperative to kick starting their businesses in 2010.
As I walked the show floor, I saw aisle after aisle of smiling faces, people shaking hands with old friends, suppliers welcoming customers into their booths and distributors browsing the offerings in search for that unique, new item. It was like any other year, except this time I sensed a palpable energy, optimism, hope and renewed sense of vigor. These people were not about to give in to doubt or call it quits. Professionals on both sides of the aisle were ready to get the spending ball rolling and the distributors had come to the show with clients and programs in mind to make that happen.
Just about everyone I talked to—from longtime distributors to new exhibitors, from veteran distributor principals to young supplier reps—yearned for the same outcome: to move as far away from 2009 as they could and as quickly as possible. And they were willing to do whatever it took to make that happen.
Surveying the happy cacophony that’s the PPAI Expo, I figured it couldn’t get any better than this. Yet this year’s Expo left me with an even richer experience.
On the last day of the show, I finally had time to wait in the long Starbucks line for the latte I’d been wanting all week. As I stood there, at least 10 minutes away from ordering, I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to see a young woman with tears in her eyes in line behind me. She asked me if her eye makeup was running down her face. “No,” I said, sensing she wanted to talk. “Why are you crying?”
She went on to explain that she was the mother of a three-year-old girl and was having a hard time being away from her for the week. As a mother of grown children, I remember the anguish of leaving little ones behind at home. I felt drawn to her with a bittersweet connection only working mothers can understand. We talked about her daughter, her work (she sold for a distributor in southern California) the show and just life as we inched toward the Starbucks counter. As we parted company several minutes later, latte in hand, I assured her the day would go quickly and she would be home before she knew it. Meeting this young member was a bright spot in my day and I moved on thinking how much that brief conversation had moved me and connected me to someone I’d never seen before.
A few hours later I was striding quickly from the staff office to the show floor and encountered a longtime friend and former supplier, Carol Walkner, MAS. Although Carol is pretty much retired from our industry, she was working the show for a supplier friend and was thrilled to be there. I knew that Carol was volunteering now in her spare time and, as we walked together, I learned she was working with nursing homes and assisted living centers in her city. Carol’s face glowed as she explained that she was conducting “Writing Circles,” intimate writing workshops to teach these elderly residents how to share their life stories and create written records that could be passed on to their families. She said she was helping them find their voices so they could share their personal history by recording their own best thoughts before it was too late. Again, I got that lump in my throat.
She was making a real difference in the lives of those residents. Her new role spoke to me as a writer and I was almost envious of the fantastic and fun experience Carol was having helping others.
Talking with Carol and the young member at Starbucks reminded me about the importance of personal connections and helped put in perspective the significance of people in our daily lives. Work may help us make a life, but people really make it worth living.