Mobile Computing: Trade-Show Tips

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Feature: Tips for Surviving Trade Shows

It's officially autumn. The nights are getting cooler; the election is heating up; and you're probably heading to Las Vegas. Or Orlando. Or someplace else where there's a convention or trade show.

With summer's end, the trade-show calendar begins to fill up. Attending or exhibiting at trade shows can be extremely rewarding. Where else can you meet so many other potentially valuable contacts in your profession in one place? But when you have to haul a notebook, PDA, mobile phone, and other gear, not to mention a few changes of clothes, the experience can be draining.

Having attended Comdex, Seybold, and many other big computer conventions, I know a thing or two about trade-show survival. Here are some of my tips for making your trek as painless as possible. I'd love to get yours, too; send me e-mail.

Planning Your Stay

If you'll be attending an out-of-town convention, get a list of the hotels nearest to the event location. Usually the trade show's Web site will offer this information. Then call your first-choice hotel; tell the clerk you'll be attending the trade show; find out if they have space left; and, most importantly, ask if they're offering special rates for attendees. You could do this all online, of course, but if you're getting close to the trade show's dates, you're better off picking up the phone.

Other questions to ask hotel staff: Is there an in-room safe large enough to accommodate a notebook? (Have the dimensions of your notebook ready, in case the hotel clerk is unsure.) Do they offer high-speed Internet access in the room? If so, is it wired or wireless, and is it included in the room rate? And is there a refrigerator or minibar in the room? After a long day of walking the trade-show floor, you'll need one--if only to store an ice pack for your throbbing tootsies.

You can search for hotels with broadband Internet access at WiredHotels.com; and Wi-Fi-FreeSpot has list of hotels offering free Wi-Fi Internet access.

If you're like me, you want some quiet time after a long day at a trade show. In that case, don't book a stay at the conference's officially sanctioned hotels, because you're bound to run into other conventioneers who want to gab, tell you about their product, or worse, go out to dinner. For an added bonus, find a hotel beyond the perimeter of the convention hall but still within walking distance--that way, you can get exercise and some privacy.

Prepping Your Gear

Many trade-show attendees and exhibitors pack a notebook, a PDA, and a mobile phone or smart phone. But will you need to carry everything to the convention floor? If so, take a rolling notebook bag that's big enough to accommodate all your gadgets, plus the inevitable press kits, brochures, business cards, and trade-show trinkets you'll accumulate.

Don't have such a bag? Head to EBags.com, where you can compare multiple bags side-by-side to help you pick the right one. Luggage Online is another good resource. Recently, I bought a hard-shell Samsonite suitcase there and paid no taxes or shipping fees, which made the total less than what I would have paid at EBags.

If you don't need all that gear at the show, leave your extra equipment in the hotel. If there's no in-room safe large enough to accommodate your notebook, you have a few options. Ask the front-desk clerk if your notebook can be stored in the hotel's safe. Or put your notebook in a large suitcase and lock it. Granted, these strategies aren't foolproof, but they're better than leaving an unattended, unsecured notebook in a hotel room.

Giving a presentation at the convention? Then I have three things to tell you: Back it up, back it up, and back it up.

When I queried Mobile Computing readers for their tips on giving presentations on the road, nearly every tipster wrote about their backup strategies to prevent presentation disasters.

Are you planning to give product demos on your notebook in a trade-show booth? Get to the booth as early as possible; the day before the show opens is ideal. Set up your equipment and go through your routine to make sure everything's working properly. Keep the phone number of a techie colleague nearby in case something goes wrong. And bring all the discs that came with your computer--system-restore CDs, application-installation CDs, and so on--in case of a hard drive crash or other disaster. Better yet, pack an external portable hard drive that mirrors your notebook's internal drive. Should your hard drive crash, you can boot from the external drive and keep going. One such option is CMS's ABSPlus Portable; you can read more details about it at the bottom of page 3 in "Better Backups."

Don't assume that the hotel, exhibit hall, or other area where you'll be using your computer will have what you need. Pack an AC adapter, an extra (fully charged) notebook battery in case there's no power plug nearby, an ethernet cable, a USB cable--in short, anything you might possibly need.

General To-Dos

Manage Your Time. Plan in advance the booths you need to visit, the people you must meet, and the conferences you should attend. If you do, you may be able to complete the show in two instead of three or more days.

Bored With Your Job? A trade show is an excellent place to put your face in front of some potential employers. Make sure you're dressed well, and have your elevator pitch (about why you'd be an excellent hire) memorized.

Take Breaks. Step outside for fresh air, especially if it's sunny. Spending too much time in a windowless convention center or meeting room can quickly make you weary and, at least in my case, a tad cranky.

Restrain Yourself. Think twice before loading up on all the free tchotchkes. Why lug all that junk around, only to throw most of it away later?

Keep Healthy. Drink plenty of water, and pack nutrition bars, slivered almonds, or other healthy snacks in your trade-show bag. Wash your hands frequently, to keep from getting cold germs. And for crying out loud, wear comfortable business shoes. On a crowded trade-show floor, few people will see your feet, so leave the Pradas at home.

A number of shoe makers produce conservative, business-like shoes with excellent cushioning. Check out the men's and women's styles at Cole Haan and Ecco--especially the models featuring Nike Air soles. They're not terribly stylish, but they're comfy. The Walking Company is another good place to shop for shoes. Its Web site is under construction, but you can find store locations there.

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