How I Killed The Safety Trade Show


By Phil La Duke

NOTE: Don’t be alarmed, I know this week’s post is early, but I have a busy weekend ahead of me and I didn’t want to have to worry about slopping something together just to meet arbitrary deadline.  I hope you enjoy it and tell me what you think.

It’s been awhile since I shook the trees and rattle the teeth of my faithful readers, so I guess I’m due. Yesterday I made my 10th consecutive presentation at a Safety Conference.  I had a great audience the message was well received.  This is the only public presentation I will be making this year, which is a bit disappointing because I have been averaging four a year kicking it off with the Michigan Safety Conference in April and generally finishing it off with an appearance at the National Safety Council.  This year I had all of my 26 abstracts shot down by the NSC.  They took their time giving me any explanation—and maybe I’m being arrogant for expecting one, but after being accepted for nine consecutive years[1] and ranked either “good” or “excellent” on my speeches (although I admit the topics—chosen by the conference organizers—weren’t always that popular I figured at least SOME reason was in order.  I was told that while my individual session evaluations were very good, when compared to the other speakers I wasn’t AS “very good” as the others in five out of the eight speeches I gave.  In what soft-headed world does this pass as constructive advice? This from the group that parades Scott Gellar and Charlie Moorecraft every year to present what is in my arrogance believe is the same message in different words.

As many of you know I have been wondering if I’m still relevant; if after 106 published articles, scores of speeches, and ten years of blogging anyone can read my work and not think that I am just rehashing things I’ve already ranted about. I’m ashamed to say this but I have been a coward and a fraud. I have never asked if magazine articles (especially specific magazines called out by name) or trade shows provide any worth; why? Because I knew if I pissed them off they wouldn’t have me as a speaker or publish my materials.  It was wrong, and borderline unethical and I feel that I owe each of you a heart-felt apology. So many of you have applauded me for being outspoken and honest when in truth I held back because I was selfish; I put my own needs in front of the needs of my readers.

So let me make up for some lost time here. First of all, the National Safety Council should have stopped having me as a speaker a long time ago.  Even though my talks were always fresh topics after a while who wants to go to a conference where the speaker’s line up looks like Mt Rushmore, the same old grey faces with nothing much new to contribute.  I have to hand it to ASSE, they give you a ridiculously short time to turn around an abstract, limit speakers to one abstract apiece, and send you a form letter that is basically a politely worded message that says, “a lot of people submitted better abstracts than yours; do better if you want to speak here.” Harsh, but in a way, comforting.  You don’t go around wondering why they didn’t accept it you know it’s because they thought it sucked and you probably would suck as a speaker. Frankly they should send the rejection letters (and they have enough class to send it via the mail) postage due.  I was mad at the ASSE for a while because several division leaders asked me to submit an abstract on something I had written.  So against my better judgment, I submitted abstracts that I didn’t think were my strongest efforts, but hey, they ASKED for them so I was guaranteed a slot, right? Wrong.  They sent me the same, “we appreciate you did your best, but your best sucked” form letter. I was furious, but now I feel like, “good for them”.  It least they had the guts to say, “we don’t care what two division chairs think, we decide what constitutes a good conference and you aint it.” Of course I was so over confident that I turned down two other speaking engagements because I was so certain ASSE was a lock, so I think you can forgive me for being a bit miffed.

While conferences are judicious in selecting speakers, they are less so with their exhibitors; you see the same venders shilling the same products year after year. How many glove manufacturers do you need? The recession hit conferences pretty hard and the exhibitors were hardest hit. At the Michigan Safety Conference, there were no fewer than five exhibitors selling “electric massage devices” I bought one last year at the NSC (don’t even stop at these booths because the pressure they put on you to buy the product is intense (one rep was so pushy he almost talked me into murdering his wife); it makes a used car dealer from 1972 look subtle) to evaluate it; it worked pretty well until the connections got a little worn and now I use it to build my resistance  to being tortured by a Central American despot; this thing, if not carefully and properly applied  HURTS.  I felt like RP McMurphy after his electroshock therapy.  One company with an exhibit is one thing but five or more is just obnoxious.  Speaking of obnoxious, how many booths do we need of people promoting degrees, each show seems to have more and more Universities offering, what I gotta believe, most people at the show already have.  It’s like going into a shoe store and selling…well shoes; most of these booths are unmanned which makes me wonder what exactly the point is.  Why shell out money for a boot and then put out pamphlets in case someone happens by.  These are universities for crying out loud, doesn’t it occur to them that they have a bunch of students who they could force to work there for free?

There tends to be less exhibitors giving away less cool stuff (I was never a trick-or-treater, but I was always interested in what companies gave away.) 8 years ago I would have vendors offering me free fire resistant coveralls, Px safety glasses, gloves, and even name brand safety boots just to evaluate because I deal with so many different companies, now I’m lucky if I’m offered a free pen that won’t write long enough to sign my name, I’m suddenly Phil~p La~~k~.

The exhibitors look like the walking dead. The recession has made it so that many exhibitors only send one or maybe two people, who after a half a day are exhausted and bored and are sitting there talking to each other, or are on the phone, or are eating their lunches.  Seriously, who is going to approach these people?  Two thirds of the exhibitors at the average show make less eye contact than Rain Man, and are less likely to say hello.

As entertaining as this rank has been (or hasn’t been) my point is this? Are trade shows still relevant? What would make YOU interested in visiting the exhibit halls? What topics do you want to know more about and who do you want to hear speak on them? I can’t quite shake the feeling that these shows are dying (by the way the Michigan Safety Conference was still going better than ever and they did a first rate job as always) and I’m a big part of why they are dying. Yes Scott Gellar, in my opinion, hasn’t had a fresh idea in 15 years, and yes Charlie Moorecraft is a hell of a nice guy, but he too has really been riding the same gravy train for 15 years. But aren’t I as guilty of doing the same? Yes I talk about a wide range of topics, but half the people come just to see if I’m going to say something shocking our outrageous, and I always do.

I think to save the safety trade shows we have to reach beyond safety for speakers. Get Dr. Paul Marciano to talk about engagement, or Charles Duhigg to talk about habit, or a neurosurgeon to talk about how people learn.

[1] Note in 2010 my employer, knowing he was going to lay me off in 2 weeks refused to allow me to make the speech so I was accepted but was unable to make the speech.