Navigating the Exhibit Hall: A User’s Guide for Beginners

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by Katy Stein, St. Mary's University Law School

Originally published in The ALL-SIS Newsletter, Volume 30, Issue 1, Fall 2010

As a new law librarian, I was so excited to attend the annual meeting in Washington, D.C. in 2009—and for good reason. I attended great programs, lunches, made new friends and reconnected with others, ate and imbibed many vendor-provided refreshments, and even saw some great sights. But, when I returned to my library, I wasn't sure if I had taken advantage of all my opportunities during the meeting, and wondered if there were experiences I wasn't aware of and missed out on. One facet of the meeting, though, I knew I didn't understand: the exhibit hall.

During my first meeting I found myself only spending a few minutes a day in the exhibit hall, mostly waiting to run into someone I knew, or to take a chance to win a Kindle. I watched as people went to booths and cheerfully interacted, but never managed to more than awkwardly stumble through a LexisNexis presentation or two. That couldn't be, as Peggy Lee lamented, all there is? This year I asked for advice. I sought the counsel of our library's Associate Director, Charlie Finger, who since his arrival has boggled my mind with his knowledge of vendors, publishers, and all else acquisitions and collection development concerned. With minimal arm-twisting, I conscripted Charlie into giving up some all too precious meeting time to show me the ways of the exhibit hall. One morning, four hours, and bags and bags of tchotchkes/swag/promotional ephemera later, here are the mysteries of the exhibit hall, now unlocked:

    1. No Fear. It may be stereotypically "librarianish" of me to admit that I'm generally uncomfortable approaching people I don't know, but it's true. I had the initial, and incorrect, assumption that unless I knew my library needed a product, or was prepared to purchase it, I'd simply be wasting the exhibitors' time. This couldn't be further from the truth. One of the greatest benefits of my exhibit hall experience this year was learning about companies I wasn't aware of, that may not seem to relate to an academic law library's needs. Instead, I re-framed the exhibit hall as a place to learn about different vendors to which I may need to look to in the future to fill a need unique to an academic library, or even just to become more conversant in the tools and services law firm and other libraries use. Specifically of interest to me were the many document delivery services, which I'll keep in mind for my more exigent faculty services circumstances. Above all, the vendors spend a great deal of money to have just this sort of face time with law librarians, to hear about their needs and what their companies can do to better serve us. Working with vendors is definitely a two-way street, and an important part of nurturing this relationship is simply meeting vendors, seeing what they have to offer, and keeping them in mind for the future.

    2. Three Simple Words. After standing around awkwardly at booths last year, I found I needed an "in," some introduction to start off conversations with vendors. And it had to be at little less transparent than, "Got any free stuff?" This year I found the perfect, all-purpose opener: "Hi, what's new?" Regardless of whether your library has been using the vendor's service for decades or you can't even tell what the service is, all the vendors I encountered had new texts, new products, or enhanced services. And that's exactly what they'd like to tell you about. This approach gives them an easy avenue to talk about their products, allowing you to determine whether you have more questions, jog your memory as to any problems you may have encountered with the service, or if you really just want to get that stressball and to move on. In my experience vendors were excited to talk about their new features, so this creates an easy way to start a great interaction.

    3. Bring a Friend. The unexpected benefits of working the exhibit hall with one of my coworkers were two-fold. First, it's more fun if you have someone else to bring into the conversation with you, and less intimidating for shy types like me. Second, and more important, given your different experiences in the library, you have more information to bring into the conversation. Where one may use a product infrequently, if at all, another may use it often and be able to ask questions about problems they've been having. If you can talk to the vendor from both the acquisitions/billing perspective and the user experience, more problems can be solved, and you benefit from learning about the library's overall experience with a vendor. All of this information can be critical when making tough decisions about whether to purchase, continue purchasing, or abandon a product or service.

    4. Do your Homework. When going through the exhibit hall with Charlie, I was amazed at his recall of what we purchased from which vendors, where we had had billing issues, and when customer service and communication were lacking. As he explained many of the vendor's top sales and service staff and management personnel are often at the meeting, making this is the best time to let them know when something is not working right. Many of those who Charlie had questions for followed up with him directly after the meeting, eager to solve problems. To this end, I'm starting a file this year where I can jot down service questions and problems, and bring them up with vendors at the next meeting, if they are not resolved by then.

    5. Collect your Goodies. Of course, these tips would be incomplete without mention of the bounty of promotional swag you can collect in your exhibit hall adventures. As a practical matter, the first thing you'll need is a bag to carry your bounty, an item easily found at many vendor tables. Once you have your bag, you're free to collect without being too overburdened. Aside from a bag, even in this age of badge-scanning, bring business cards both for entering drawings and giving to vendors whom you'd like to hear from directly. Also remember that many of the vendors, particularly the publishers, are not excited about dragging their products back home, so it doesn't hurt to ask for a copy of that book/looseleaf/DVD set—especially on Tuesday, in the exhibit hall's final hours.

    6. Sharing the Wealth. At the end of my exhibit hall adventure, I was tired, thirsty, and a little dazed. I felt as though I had gotten drunk on free pens and USB drives as the remnants of my exhibit hall spree bulged through my suitcase. But, after I arrived home, much of my bounty found new homes as well. Though it may seem a small gesture, offering up your goodies to co-workers who couldn't attend the meeting is always appreciated. From there, USB drives can be saved to use at the circulation desk for students needing to borrow one, a cheap option as our drives seem to wander off easily. Others can be saved for prizes to give out in legal research classes or at library presentations. Even my dog shared in the benefit, and remained vendor-neutral, reportedly enjoying his WestlawNext football and LexisNexis stadium blanket equally.

Thanks to all I learned from Charlie and my exhibit hall adventure this year, I can't wait for next year's meeting to sharpen my skills, make more of my time, and practice my three-word opener for all the information and networking benefits, and of course, all manner of goodies. I am still holding out for my free iPad, after all.