Saturday, September 1, 2018

Atlanta ASHRAE Show ~ No Tools Required, Deflating Giant Logos & Previously Unspoken Hijinks

Long ago I was a Chicago account executive for a global producer of trade show exhibits. Among my clients was a global producer of air conditioning equipment with a frugal marketing budget headquartered in a Lutheran intensive state north of Illinois.

My challenge was to produce for this client a massive exhibit at 1/2 the cost of a typical project that size. The company wanted to make a big cheap splash at ASHRAE, the HVAC industry's annual convention. That year ASHRAE was at Atlanta's Georgia World Congress Center.

Enter the legendary Frank Vavpotic, director of the design staff at my 'shop'. Frank conceived an inexpensive solution that was brilliant on several fronts.

The exhibit backwall consisted of a new NTR system. NTR stood for No Tools Required, mass produced panels that connected via built in cleats. This would stymie even the most creative convention center union shop steward, who would be unable to prevent an exhibitor from assembling their own display.

The client wanted their logo to be prominently featured as frequently and frugally as possible. Frank again came up with the perfect means to achieve that - gimongo inflatables. Think Santa Fe Balloon Festival, only a little smaller, inflated by continuous fans instead of hot air and no passengers.

The hard to please Lutheran clientele were thrilled with Frank's work and could not wait to put their megabudget ASHRAE competitors to exhibit hall shame.

I worked with two ladies of Scandinavian lineage in day to day communications, Astrid and Inga. Their boss was Ole, a conservative man also of Scandinavian lineage. Think Prairie Home Companion's Pastor Ingqvist, only not ordained to my knowledge.

Those are not their real names. But they are Scandinavian names.

These are not Astrid or Inga, who were only slightly older yet just as blonde. However, I am confident these two are Scandinavian.

As ASHRAE approached Inga phoned with some questions.

"You are from Atlanta. I am working on an after hours guide for staff working the show. What restaurants do you recommend?"

I tried to beg out, "But I left Atlanta 10 years ago. A lot has changed."

Inga replied, "Give it your best shot."

She clearly wanted me to be her Yelp before there was a Yelp. Her company was too miserly to spring for a Fodor's guide. I was a bought and paid for commissioned salesperson who lacked the imagination to figure out how to charge for my city guide services.

I reeled off a list of Atlanta dining institutions I was pretty sure had not closed. It was not a large list, as 
in those days the city rolled up downtown sidewalks precisely at 5:01 PM. I threw in The Varsity without warning, suggesting their CEO host only top national accounts there to celebrate prosperity and thank them for loyal patronage. 

Inga continued, "What about gentlemen's clubs?"

"Uh, excuse me?"

"You heard me. What about gentlemen's clubs? Our staff will want to know about all of Atlanta's famous landmarks."

"Okay, I know people who once attended bachelor parties at a few of those. In descending order of cost and talent, they are The Gold Club, Cheetah 3 and Tattletale (tie), Classy Cat following as a close number 4 ... on down to Clermont Lounge. Sorry, only the names of those 17 come to mind. From what I'm told."

Inga and I had apparently completed her questionnaire, so we ended the call.

Weeks later Inga, Astrid, Ole and I were in Atlanta to set up ASHRAE. Their frugal marketing budget did not allow for a rental car, so I was their uncompensated commissioned salesperson chauffeur.

At the World Congress Center all went beautifully. Though Georgia is a right to work state, show labor guys were more than a little ticked off by the NTR panels even Scandinavian females could install without breaking a sweat or hiring show labor guys.

Then came the time to inflate Frank's half dozen gimongo logo balloons. We had time to test only one in Chicago, so I prayed all would hold air and there would be no Hindenburg experience. At least not before I left town.

I know, the Hindenburg was a dirigible, not a balloon. Do not confuse me with facts.

One by one each logo balloon inflated beautifully, their humming fans creating a soothing white noise. The results looked fluffy and inviting. As all on the show floor took notice, Inga, Astrid, Ole and I chuckled with smug yet relieved satisfaction.

This is not Ole, who was considerably older and not blonde. But I know this guy is Scandinavian.

I then reminded all of Frank's recommendation. "You need to tether those balloons to the ceiling in case of a power failure."

Astrid replied, "We remember. Nah. Too expensive, and we've never seen an exhibit hall power failure."

This what tethering equipment would have looked like. Surprisingly the operator is not on union break.

I had seen show hall power failures, but I could earn no commission off of a rigger tethering balloons, so I held my tongue.

On the eve of ASHRAE opening day the four of us dined at some downtown restaurant that managed to not go out of business. As I was driving them to their hotel, either Astrid or Inga asked, "So where is the nearest gentlemen's club?"

I replied, "Good question. If my Motorola bag phone battery was not toast I would call some friend who has been to one and might know."

"Shut up except to answer the question Pete. Where is the nearest gentlemen's club? Today is Ole's birthday."

I began to perspire and hope the red light would turn green real fast. It did not.

"Okay, if I remember correctly from what my friends have told me, The Gold Club is 3 blocks east and one block north. Cheetah 3 is 2 blocks west and 2/3s of a block south. For Tattletail I would have to make a U-turn. Clermont is closest but it scares me. I mean what friends have said about it scares me. Don't we have an early morning and big day tomorrow? Boy am I beat!"

Said Astrid, "You can take a nap on the plane tomorrow. It is Ole's birthday. Take us to the Cheetah 3."

I felt the urgent need to ask Ole about this and tell him it could be dangerous. I might have described the image below.

As usual stoic Ole was not speaking up. Astrid and Inga were in charge that night. The light finally turned green, and I hung a left.

In the parking lot Astrid pulled me aside and instructed, "Give Ole dollar bills tonight. No way we can spend company money or our own at a place like this."

The thought occurred to me that a little heads up would have been nice. I didn't necessarily leave the hotel that AM with a wad of singles. I checked my wallet and was relieved to find I had enough to get by unless Inga and Astrid intended for us to pull an all nighter.

We entered, I put the cover charge on my AmEx and we were seated stageside. Astrid and Inga drew stares from the mostly male audience, who likely hoped it was amateur night. Their presence also drew the attention of dancing talent on stage. Whenever a dancer approached, as they did nonstop, Inga would explain with a straight face, "It's that guy's birthday. He's our boss. Entertain him."

Dancers hovered around birthday boy Ole for a couple of hours. I shoved dollars into his hand under the table, and he stuffed them in garters. Astrid and Inga sat by and nursed their two drink minimums with subdued but bemused grins. I kept hoping they might decide it was amateur night, but the outcome of that probably would not have been conducive to that company's longevity as my client.

We departed, and I drove the threesome to their hotel in pregnant silence. I returned to my hotel for a blissful 3 hours of sleep.

The next morning we all arrived at the Congress Center as refreshed as possible for ASHRAE opening day. My clients graciously agreed to cab it, sparing me the 1 hour round trip rush hour 1/2 mile drive had I again been expected to be their cab driver.

ASHRAE opened with great fanfare. All was well, my job was done and I bid good luck and farewell before departing for the airport.

Back in Chicago t
he next morning, I arrived at the office to find a note on my desk. It was a phone message from Astrid. There indeed had been a Hindenburg experience.

Ten minutes after I left ASHRAE the balloon fans apparently overloaded a circuit, power blew out, and six logos concurrently wilted, coming to rest atop No Tools Required panels below. It was two hours before electricians could run enough additional juice to attempt safe and reliable logo reinflation.

I was not certain if Astrid called to place blame or confess they should have heeded our balloon tethering suggestions. Had she blamed me I intended to blame Frank Vavpotic.

I had not yet had nearly enough coffee and grabbed a double o
n the way to Frank's office. I sat down and shared with him this high profile corporate event experience for the ages that neither of us could talk about for at least a decade.

Last week Frank and I reconnected. Over the years he set aside his design skills and went on to become a successful sales exec and CEO at major trade show companies. While on the phone there was too little time for me to recount the ASHRAE saga. Thus the inspiration to recount it here.

Frank, I dedicate this memory to you.