Even before I arrive at my destination I get into a comfortable position on the flight and allow the pilot and crew to take full control of my destiny. Having delegated this responsibility to people whom I have never before met, I now pull out the conference agenda and start circling the sessions I would like to attend. Unfortunately, some conferences and trade shows run so many tracks simultaneously that it is often a tough choice trying to decide which presentation paper should take precedence over another. Nevertheless, one way or another I usually resolve this dilemma, even if with some degree of frustration.
When I was younger, guilt and work ethic forced me to be one of the first persons to register on the first day of the conference. Age has been creeping up slowly, so today I plan to arrive about an hour after the long lines have melted. Nevertheless, I'm anxious to get started. The friendly receptionist who signs me in hands me a heavy package comprising tickets for the door prize (most important), meal tickets (just as important), and of-course a bound copy of the proceedings. In recent years, the package has gotten lighter as more conference organizers have decided to publish the proceedings on a CD-ROM rather than on several pounds of paper. Regardless, I immediately find the nearest coffee shop, sit down in the most comfortable chair available, and start going through the proceedings, either in print or on my laptop. In this regard I tend to be quite ruthless, immediately flipping passed those papers for which I have absolutely no interest, and highlighting those about which I would like to know more. Give it a half hour max, and I'm done. Now it's really time to get started. No more procrastinating.
The Quest for Interesting Speakers
Rather than attend every paper in a session I specifically pick only those in which I have an acute interest. For the remainder I prefer to read a paper directly from the proceedings and highlight questions that I might want to ask the authors when time permits. Unfortunately, many novice speakers read their papers anyway and their PowerPoint presentations comprise word slides with a few funky graphics. Frankly, such presentations annoy me since we can all read the papers much faster than the speaker can flip from one slide to the next. Presenters should be barred, banned, outlawed, and fined if all they can do is read what we can all see on the screen. Such speakers who start the afternoon session are the worst. Those in the audience who aren't embarrassed to sleep in public might not mind, but for the rest of us, just plain don't do it!
It's always a pleasure to sit in on a paper that is presented in a lively, entertaining, yet well prepared manner. Jokes are funny…sometimes. A speaker can be entertaining without telling jokes, but it does take some time to prepare.
Since I have been in the paints and coatings industry for over 20 years, I no longer enjoy spending 45 minutes hearing about the basics of a technology. Instead, I come to conferences primarily to learn what is new, and hot, and cutting edge. I come to learn more about what has not yet been published in the literature. On the rare occasion when that happens I walk away feeling excited and very gratified.
Looking for What's New
Since I'm selective in which papers I attend, I spend the remainder of my day walking up and down the aisles of the exhibition hall looking for new technologies or anything new that catches my eye. Of course, since most of the booth managers attend the same conference each year, it is always fun to stop, greet old friends, and catch up on the latest personal news. But that is not the reason for going to a conference. As Organic Coatings Editor, I usually stop at a booth even if it doesn't look particularly interesting, and ask the exhibitor to please explain what is being demonstrated. Even if it's patently obvious why the panel, instrument, or whatever is being shown, I might ask the attendant what new technology developments have taken place since we last came to the conference a year earlier. Regardless of the many years I've been walking up and down the aisles I'm always amazed how much new technology is presented. What I've learned is that it is a mistake to simply pass a booth on the assumption that there is nothing new to glean. Most of the articles about organic coatings that you see published in Metal Finishing have resulted from simple curiosity and my questions aimed at trying to know a little more about a technology. Invariably, when I strike up a conversation with the other person, we start to explore the topic to a much greater depth than either of us had anticipated, and soon the two of us are having an exciting, animated conversation, while the folks at the neighboring booth are looking our way. This is where the fun can be found!
When I first got into this business I predefined those topics that were of interest to our readers and put aside those that appeared to be mundane and basic. For instance, I would look for paint companies who were exhibiting new low-VOC coating technologies, or equipment vendors who had just developed what was then ground-breaking HVLP spray guns. Being so limited and narrow in my fields of interest made it very difficult to find papers that we would be able to publish.
Keeping an Open Mind
Imagine going to the same conference year after year and seeing what appeared to be the same technologies being presented. Even the same booths were being erected from one conference to the next. Since I was pressured to find new topics for publication I started going back to basics and found that if I stopped at booths that were exhibiting equipment, coatings, instruments, and processes that I'd seen for the past umpteen years perhaps I could gleannew insights that had never occurred to me before. It turns out that this approach was extremely successful.
Take, for example, the subject of spray booth filters. Unless you are specifically interested in purchasing filters for your spray booth, what is the likelihood that you will stop and ask questions? Well, following my new philosophy I've been doing so for several years and have found that the technology of iltration is more interesting than first meets the eye. Filters are not just simple spun fabrics made of natural or synthetic fibers. A highly specialized science drives this technology. During the past few days I have been working on a legal case that involves spray booth filters. By going to the Internet, I have learned much about how they should be selected, the fact that filter thickness plays an important role in its capture efficiency, how air velocity changes these parameters, and much, much more.
Leverage the Expertise on the Show Floor
For the most part you can't have an interactive conversation with a website, but speaking to a technical person at a convention can accomplish so much more. I have come to realize and appreciate that the representatives who work at the booths are frequently "experts" in their field, not just on their specific product line. With this realization I can now get into the nitty-gritty details of not just specific products, but wider issues of common problems and industry trends. I'm now hard pressed to cover the entire exhibition floor in the available time. There simply is so much to learn even about technologies that I had previously taken for granted. Consider masking tapes, masking plugs, air caps and needles for spray guns, the science of paint atomization, and much more. Frankly, if you're willing to examine the smallest details of each technology you will be amazed at how much knew information there is to explore. That is what makes my job so much fun.
So, when exactly do I get around to reading the interesting papers that I highlighted on the first day of the conference? More often than not I devote a few minutes each day before or after watching TV in my hotel room, or over breakfast if I'm dining alone.
Did I just mention food? Food is integral to any successful conference. Truly, it is. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner, in that order, are the best times for me to mercilessly quiz my hungry friend or acquaintance about his or her field of interest. It is amazing how many articles we have published in Metal Finishing that originated at a restaurant table. The conversation usually starts with casual small talk but by the time the meal has been fully consumed, we've gotten down to the "meat and gravy" of the technology as well as the entrée.
If you think that I'm exploiting my friend, let me assure you that it is a win–win situation for both of us. I am critically interested in publishing new and groundbreaking stuff, while my friend is excited at the possibility of having an article published showcasing the author as well as the subject matter. By the time we part company and head back to the convention center we are not only intellectually satisfied, but our appetites have been quelled at least for the next few hours.
Thanks to Metal Finishing I get to meet interesting scientists, engineers, product developers, marketing and sales managers, production folks, environmental regulators, and sometimes even lawyers. Going to a conference can be boring or exhilarating, depending on one's attitude.
When It's Time to Go
Here is another lesson I've learned with age: when it's time to go, it's time to go. There is no point walking up and down the aisles of the exhibition hall after you've completed the job. In my younger years I would try to stretch out my time until the last booth was being pulled down. But I've come to realize that the once I've covered the entire floor and spoken to everyone of interest, it's time to return to the hotel and complete the paperwork. In any case, if I missed someone this year, then I'll make up for it next year. If I'm not pressed to get back to the airport for my home-bound flight, I use the remaining time to make notes, catch up on the papers that I haven't yet read, organize the business cards that I've collected, and send out dozens of emails to prospective authors.
Once the job has been completed I feel no guilt sitting on plane home with a pillow behind my neck, a good entertaining book on my lap, and a refreshment on the pullout table in front of me. And that's my routine until the next conference comes around.
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