Three Days on Display C’mon, admit it. At some point during Convention, you succumbed to the exhibit hall, tempted by its massive, glittery spectacle of products, services, giveaways, and vital professional resources. Call it what you will—a busy open air market laid out along broad avenues swarming with attendees; a public ceremonial staging of ... ASHA Convention Coverage
ASHA Convention Coverage  |   November 01, 2011
Three Days on Display
Author Notes
  • Gary Dunham, PhD, is the director of publications for ASHA. He can be reached at
    Gary Dunham, PhD, is the director of publications for ASHA. He can be reached at×
Article Information
Speech, Voice & Prosodic Disorders / Hearing Disorders / Swallowing, Dysphagia & Feeding Disorders / Professional Issues & Training / ASHA News & Member Stories / Normal Language Processing / ASHA Convention Coverage
ASHA Convention Coverage   |   November 01, 2011
Three Days on Display
The ASHA Leader, November 2011, Vol. 16, online only. doi:10.1044/
The ASHA Leader, November 2011, Vol. 16, online only. doi:10.1044/
C’mon, admit it. At some point during Convention, you succumbed to the exhibit hall, tempted by its massive, glittery spectacle of products, services, giveaways, and vital professional resources. Call it what you will—a busy open air market laid out along broad avenues swarming with attendees; a public ceremonial staging of annual encounters between attendees and exhibitors; a vast, one-stop shopping mart for CSD products and information—the exhibit hall is sometimes overwhelming but always irresistible. In no other place in Convention is so much going on for so long. For three days, representatives from international publishing conglomerates diligently recruit authors and sell products; vendors demonstrate the latest technologies and clinical tools; attendees scoop giveaways of all shapes and shades into already overladen tote bags. From Thursday morning through Saturday afternoon, recruiters from Alaska to Surprise, Arizona chat up job prospects; National Office staff answer questions and assist members; acronyms hang thick in the air; and volunteers from non-profit organizations avidly tell of their professional mandates and activities. Brave the crowds, it’s worth it—the exhibit hall offers attendees an unparalleled opportunity to look, learn, and take away.
Peer once more through the magnifying glass, however, and a different exhibit hall appears. For those who staff and stay at their booths while attendees stream by and Convention inexorably rolls forth, what’s really on display is you—ASHA and its diverse, wonderfully energized members. I was one of those exhibit hall staff in San Diego, representing ASHA publications at the Member Service Center. For three days, I listened to the crowd, spoke with exhibitors, custodians, students, and members, and, well, poked my nose into everything of interest. Hey, I’m both an editor-in-chief of a news magazine and an anthropologist—I can’t help being curious and a bit nosy.
Day 1, 9:13 a.m. The crowd arrives and orchestrated, delightful madness ensues.
Day 1, 11:23 a.m . Custodial staff, armed with standing dustpans and brooms, dart from debris field to debris field, including a croissant trampled across the Cyber Café. Other custodians move in well-rehearsed motion from trash can to trash can, blue-gloved hands pushing large carts banded in yellow. Suddenly, two carts collide at a trash can outside of Learning Lab #2. “Hey, that’s MY space!” scolds an indignant custodian to the other, who retreats apologetically.
In public ceremonies and events such as the exhibit hall, the same physical space shared by separate interest groups is often seen and valued in different—sometimes radically different—ways. The custodial staff, for which the ASHA Convention is the latest in the dozens of conferences taking place at the San Diego Convention Center this year, parses and ascribes meaning to the exhibit hall by dividing it into zones of individual work responsibility. As with every conference, each custodian is assigned a certain area to service routinely throughout the day. Consequently, every aisle way, every trash can, although usually indistinguishable to exhibitors and attendees, bears distinct significance through work assignment for those few in the exhibit hall who came before and will be there after we’ve gone home. “It’s a fair amount of work,” shrugged one custodian, “but, truth tellin’, this isn’t the biggest or the smallest convention. We’ve got the American Society of Hematology next month,” he remarked, “and they’re supposed to be about 22,000!” His friend, another custodian, grinned. “Just wait until Comic-Con next summer,” she chuckled, shaking her head. “Over 125,000 here!” In general, the staff was pleased with the ASHA Convention. “This one’s cleaner than most this fall,” confides one custodian. “They’re pretty considerate and nice, not too messy. At least there are no alcohol and food receptions in the exhibit hall!”
Although the way that the custodial staff organize and assign value to the exhibit hall is largely invisible to most at Convention, that’s not the case with the more than 300 exhibitors, whose booths very visibly moor and map out the shared space for the 11,000+ attendees and themselves. For exhibitors, their monetary transactions conducted before the Convention have transformed the tabula rasa of a huge, empty hall into a three-day, one-time artificial world girded by sharply demarcated zones of proprietary meaning. Booths effectively become extensions of corporate and association brands, bastions of business identities within which partnerships are forged with ASHA members and wares sold. The exhibitors I spoke with invariably saw promise in ASHA and the future of the professions, feeling that Convention was worth their sometimes considerable investment. “We’re here to affirm and build upon our long-term commitment to speech-language pathology and audiology,” said one representative of a large, international publisher. “Clearly, there’s no better single place and time on earth to deliver that message than here, right now.” Another publisher agreed. “This field, unlike so many in this economy, is healthy and continues to grow,” she acknowledged. “We’ve come to San Diego as interested in creating business relationships for the far future as in reaping the short-term reward of Convention sales.” A representative of a non-profit organization saw her exhibit as crucial to the long-term success of the organization’s mission. “Convention gives us a chance at the state level to connect nationally with our colleagues,” she said. “I always feel refreshed, on fire again, and part of the bigger picture when I leave here!” Another vendor got right to the point. “THIS is where it happens!” exclaimed the owner of a privately-owned service company, resplendent in a dizzying, electric flowered shirt, as he weaved through the crowd, clutching six billowing silvery balloons spelling out the name of his firm. At his booth, the now tethered six balloons floated up, one letter at a time.
The attendees not surprisingly see and value the exhibit hall in a highly individualistic manner, according to their idiosyncratic intentions for entering its doors. Most members navigated the crowds and took in the exhibit hall in its entirety between sessions, methodically parading up and down the aisles, at intervals enticed by particular products, services, professional information, or giveaways to step out of the stream of attendees and chat with exhibitors. Some students and members just knew what they wanted and ignored the rest. “Where’s the iPad giveaway?” asked one member, right before being engulfed by a flash mob ablaze with neon orange shirts and sneakers in front of the graffiti car. A student whispered urgently to her friend as they rushed past the Action Lounge, “Go and talk to that editor, just don’t spit on him this time, OK?” Two members, heads buried in a shared publisher’s catalog, raised them occasionally to shoot rapid-fire questions about availability and pricing to an enthusiastic but obviously nervous representative—it was his first big conference. Another member visited the exhibit hall specifically to make sure that his much anticipated new handbook and DVD were on display at the publisher’s booth:
  • Morning of Day 1 visit to that publisher’s booth: said handbook and DVD were not visible, anywhere.

  • Morning of Day 2 visit: his handbook and DVD were tucked in a bottom shelf in back of booth.

  • Late Morning of Day 2: Ragnarök in booth.

  • Afternoon of Day 2 visit: handbook and DVD now displayed proudly and appropriately in front of booth at the checkout counter.

A handful of students and members I spoke with visited the exhibit hall to speak with potential employers; some had pre-arranged meetings with publishers and other vendors. Still others, usually students, needed to get online at the Cyber Café or were snacking on pre-paid lunches while sprawled picnic-like on bright blue carpet. “I’ve gone to two sessions, took a nap, and am still exhausted,” admitted one student to two companions while eating a late lunch on Day 2. “This tote bag is killing me,” sighed the second picnicker, “May have to hit a massage later.” “I fell in the bathtub last night,” complained the third, interrupting her lament to text and track down another attendee.
Day 2, 11:22 a.m. The dance continues!
Day 2, 1:51 p.m. A rare quieter moment in the hall as the constant tidal roar of the crowd subsides to a trickling murmur. Individual conversations surface. One member is juggling mortgage brokers on the phone while flipping through the Convention program; an agitated exhibitor on break is pacing back and forth next to the Member Service Center, issuing orders into a tightly clutched phone. A trapped pigeon launches from a hiding place behind the Exhibitor Lounge, dive bombs Audiology Row, and careens towards the other end of the hall, narrowly missing the silvery balloon letters billowing above a vendor wearing his second electric flowered shirt of the week. Below, the smaller crowd presses forward slowly, many with their heads down, looking at smartphones. One member, texting furiously, walks into a column.
Long-time exhibitors are invariably students of behavior. After participating in dozens if not hundreds of conventions and meeting thousands of attendees, exhibitors like myself understand well the myriad intentions and distractions that impel visitors to and from booths. Keep in mind, my dear Convention attendees, that as you visit booths, exhibitors are instinctively matching your behavior with those who have come before. It’s even possible at a convention for exhibitors with equal parts whimsy and insight to classify attendees into groups, based on their actions in the aisles and booths. And yes, I and other exhibitors will readily admit to belonging to one or more of these groups on many occasions as we roam the exhibit hall ourselves. So, with tongue firmly in cheek, let’s take a look at these Convention personas.
Wandering down the aisles, one can often spot entourages, consisting of handfuls of protégés orbiting seasoned professionals, and packs, usually made up of friends or students thrown together by Convention circumstance. Guided by the seasoned professional and often raised on academic rigor, entourages tend to move purposefully and productively from booth to booth. In contrast, the ever shifting packs prefer the freedom of the open aisle to roam, frequently clogging entrances to booths by rubbernecking in front of them.
And let’s not forget those brave attendees who traverse the exhibit hall alone. Afire with mission and fixed purpose, the commando strides through the aisles in search of the agreed-upon objective, such as purchasing certain products or a pre-arranged meeting with a vendor. The immediate business at hand guides the commando’s initial booth behavior, though small talk and even browsing may be permitted once the objective is secured. Most dangerous of the solitary attendees is the lone wolf, who may be a Convention first-timer, bored and listless between sessions, or, well, lacks a certain degree of social awareness. Three breeds of lone wolf are often spotted in exhibit halls. The most recent to appear is the phoneatic, those born with a smartphone in hand. The phoneatic is known for its peculiar gait—a head down, forward shuffle punctuated by frequent cessation of all motion, especially in crowded aisles and jam-packed booths. Of particular interest is the dangler, those who find themselves in a booth between sessions and, having nothing else on their agenda for the next half hour, proceed to snare vendors in conversation while potential customers wait or give up and leave. The dangler begins the entrapment by (1) moving between the vendor and others in the booth; (2) casting a bewildered look at the products and signage; and then (3) seals the fate of the vendor by inquiring, “So…[the puzzled pause is key, here]...what’s this all about?” OK, I recognize myself in the dangler. At my last Convention, taking a break from staffing, I wandered into an adjacent booth and, needing to kill time, monopolized that poor exhibitor for what must have been 15 very long minutes for him.
Despite the obvious dangers posed by the phoneatic and dangler, the breed of lone wolf most feared by exhibitors is the riffler. Adrift between sessions, a riffler chooses a random booth as a temporary refuge from Convention. Bored and not much interested in the display, the riffler enters tactile mode and begins to touch. Many things. While never really looking at them. Books are picked up and flipped through without the riffler setting eyes on the pages; fingers trace edges and corners of catalogs and handouts; business cards are picked up and deposited elsewhere without being read. The riffler is best known by the chaos left behind—dog-eared pages, piles of handouts in coffee-ringed disarray, business cards (not all yours) scattered, and, yes, often remnants of foodstuffs and beverages consumed during the reign of terror.
Day 2, 3:47 p.m. The Career Fair is the eye at the center of the exhibit hall hurricane. It’s shockingly quiet, here. At one table, a recruiter from an Alaska school district is talking persuasively to a graduate student, who is intrigued but voices concerns about relocating to the Far North with her children and “getting stuck.” A few other students wander the near-silent rows, occasionally stopping to chat with recruiters or grab applications.
Having spent most of my publishing career in the humanities and social sciences, I visited ASHA’s Career Fair with three expectations in mind: (1) it would be the most frequented location in the exhibit hall where (2) long lines of smartly attired and increasingly desperate job seekers would be waiting to speak with (3) a meager handful of employers hiring.
Nothing of the kind.
No lines of job seekers; row upon row of employers eager to recruit. Telling signs in the heart of Convention that speech-language pathology and audiology are healthy professions; confirmatory evidence that the exhibitors’ abiding enthusiasm for the future of Communication Sciences and Disorders is warranted. The broad, sweeping avenues and rows of the exhibit hall etch the contour lines of vibrant professions with real futures.
Day 3, 2 p.m.The exhibit hall has just closed, and the illusion shatters. The minute the doors close, Convention Hall staff scoot across the floor to take down the exhibits as quickly as possible, beginning with rolling up aisle carpets. The vendor sporting his third electric flowered shirt of the week pulls down his now desiccated silvery balloon letters. He’s smiling. It’s been a good three days on display.
See you next year.
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November 2011
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