A few years ago, my friend (and probably yours, too) Mary Ellen Nichols, MAS, director of marketing at supplier Bodek and Rhodes, dropped a quote by author John le Carré that I found both enlightening and unsettling: A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world.
I printed it out and taped it on a cabinet above my workspace where it stayed for several months. The paper eventually became tattered and I tossed it—but I’ve never forgotten the message.
It’s safe to guess that le Carré, who was born in 1931, made this observation well before the digital age. Now it’s even easier to withdraw physically while interacting with thousands of people through a few keystrokes.
As le Carré’s genius points out, it’s also too easy for distributors to become separated from their buyers and for suppliers to inadvertently distance themselves from the customers they serve. Websites make it effortless to view products, see virtual samples and make decisions without ever pressing the flesh—why make a visit when you can just press a button? Well, because despite the ease and immediacy of using technology to reach out to customers and vendors, nothing else quite measures up to meeting with someone face-to-face and learning about their needs one-on-one.
PPAI’s President and CEO Paul Bellantone, CAE, who marks his first year on the job this month, has found that out firsthand. Never one to stay behind the desk anyway, one of the first courses of business in his new role was to take to the road to visit as many members in their businesses as possible. Since July 2011, Bellantone, often joined by PPAI board chairs Eric Ekstrand, MAS, and Steven Meyer, MAS, have made more than 40 visits to member companies and regional associations to talk with them personally, shake their hands and find out what they need from PPAI—and he’s not done yet.
In his wake are many other staff members, including Executive Vice President Bob McLean, who have crisscrossed North America this past year attending company and regional events in the U.S., as well as in Canada and Mexico. You’ve probably seen articles and photos about their visits published in this magazine and in PPB Newslink.
The publications department team, too, knows the value of getting out from behind our computers at least every month and stopping in on local factories and distributor offices. Those visits have not only helped uncover some fascinating people and companies to write about but have given us a real appreciation of your challenges and a sense of what it’s like to walk in your shoes. We can’t get the same from Twitter.
In June, 16 of us here at PPAI traveled to the PROMOTIONS EAST show in Atlantic City to experience the show and the approximately 3,200 distributors and 500 or so exhibitors who were there. It was invigorating to be able to check in with old friends, meet new people, and hear their stories, ideas and challenges.
I remember a few years ago when the idea of virtual tradeshows was hot. Some people feared tradeshows would go away. They shouldn’t have worried. Looking at the many shows in our industry right now, and the news about PROMOTIONS EAST becoming Expo East next year, it’s clear that in-person communication isn’t going anywhere right now.
As I write this, I’m planning to visit more members in Denver, Phoenix and Tucson next week as I join the SAGE Seminar Series for one of their three-day traveling education programs. Other staff colleagues including Chris Piper, director of business development; Blake Bozeman, business development manager; Carol Gauger, director of member engagement; Anne Lardner-Stone, director of public affairs; Sandy Mendoza, report analyst; Bellantone and McLean have represented PPAI at these events and found the experience inspiring, informative and infinitely valuable.
While putting together this issue, I also talked (by phone, unfortunately) with Seth Mattison, a captivating generational expert who will be speaking at PPAI’s North American Leadership Conference in New Orleans next month. See the Q&A with him starting on page 60. He pointed out an interesting fact: While those in the Millennial generation born between 1982-2000 are über comfortable and confident communicating via technology, they are often sorely lacking in interpersonal skills. In other words, “communicating properly beyond the screen,” as Morrison put it, is an area they need to strengthen.
So my message is, get out more often. If you are not currently immersing yourself in your customers’ worlds through personal contact, tradeshows and live visits, make a plan and go do it. You may be pleasantly surprised by what you find out there.