Insights on business -- and life.
The Worst Trade Show Ever
Why CHA is no longer in Chicago in the Winter.
by Mike Hartnett (February 5, 2007)
The Chicago Bears making the Super Bowl reminded me of the worst
HIA (now CHA) show in recent history. It was a perfect storm of
The year was 1986 and the show was held in Chicago. The show had
been held in Chicago every year since its inception as a
hobby-dominated association. A disastrous snowstorm had ruined the
show a few years earlier, so the show had moved to various cities in
the Sun Belt.
As time went by craft companies comprised the majority HIA
members, but the board of directors was still dominated by
manufacturers of plastic model kits, model railroads, and
radio-controlled cars. As the show became less and less successful
for them, they decided to try Chicago again, as if returning to the
city of past success would rekindle the good old days.
But thanks to the increase in craft exhibitors, the show had
outgrown the hotels in which the show had been held, and was moved
to McCormick Place beside Lake Michigan.
Problem #1. The weather. Many people from the Sun Belt did
not have winter coats and those who did didn't remember how to
dress. They froze every time they stepped out of their hotel rooms.
During set-up the bay doors were kept open so booths could be
brought in. In other words, no heat. The wind blew off the lake,
through the bay doors, and froze everyone. There's a reason Chicago
is called the "Windy City."
Problem #2. The unions. Craft companies in particular were
used to non-union trade shows, where you could erect your booth and
plug in your lights yourself. Not Chicago. Exhibitors were paying as
much as $35 for an electrician to take an extension cord and plug it
into an outlet.
Problem #3. The Bears. The show opened on Super Bowl Sunday,
and the Bears won. That night most show attendees were trapped in
their hotel rooms because streets were blocked off to accommodate
riotous Bear fans.
Problem #4. McCormick Place. The HIA show was held on one
floor, while a gift show was happening on another floor. Both shows
closed each day at the same time, so thousands of tired show-goers
streamed out of McCormick Place together. At the time, the layout of
McCormick Place did not allow for numerous shuttle busses or taxis
to be waiting at the curb. Tired attendees had to wait – in the
cold – as long as 40 minutes for their bus.
Problem #5. The Shuttle. Tuesday morning I walked onto the
show floor about 15 minutes after the show had started – and there
was dead silence. A few exhibitors had televisions in their booth so
they could watch the Super Bowl. Every one was huddled around the
tv's, watching replays of the shuttle, the Challenger, exploding.
Virtually no business was conducted that day.
That wasn't the only trade show with problems. Craft World, at
one time the dominant distributor, held an Expo in Kansas City that
was just like a trade show. Except the buyers didn't attend. The
show was so empty, and the exhibitors so bored by the last day, that
some vendors were conducting sexually explicit make-it/take-its in
their booth. You took an unfinished wooden bracelet and then you
painted.... uh ... and then you took two pom poms and glued ... oh
The last few Ben Franklin shows were similar. At one, bored
exhibitors set up a miniature golf course in the aisles to pass the
time. There was even time to conduct a tournament.
Then there was the needlework show held in a hotel that was also
the site a show for the pornographic film industry. So the knitters
and crocheters were sharing the elevators and coffee shop with uh,
P.S. I just returned home to Illinois from Anaheim. As I
write this, the wind chill is 20 degrees below zero. Imagine if the
CHA show was still held in Chicago?
(Note: To read previous Kate's Collage articles, click on
the titles in the right-hand column. Have a trade show horror story?
Send your tale of woe to CLN at email@example.com.)