Conference Illusions

Sunny Florida in the dead of winter. A generic hotel ballroom packed with indistinguishable vendor booths. Two hotel staffed open bars adorned with branding from the “Vendor Fair and Cocktail Hour” sponsor. Small circles of generally white middle aged men wearing mostly identical gray or navy suits having numerous variations of the same conversation.

It starts out with the usual greeting and discussion of how much they are enjoying the wonderful weather in Florida – even though they’ve spent the entire day in hotel ballrooms with no natural light. Then they move on to “comparing” how awful the winter weather has been where they live. It’s -10 in Chicago? We went 3 weeks straight below freezing in Toronto! In Boston the snow banks are as high as a 6 story building! This continues on for awhile until the conditions at each locale have been finally described as being only slightly more inhabitable to mankind than the dark side of Pluto.

Whoever “won” the weather description continues playing the role of alpha male and immediately changes the conversation to business. The all ask how each others company is doing, of course the only acceptable answer is some variation of “great”, “wonderful” or “best quarter ever”. Those that could potentially have a use for each others product profess that they are nearly sure their company is yearning to purchase just such a product.

Now it is time for the business card exchange. A ritual which temporarily transforms a piece of printed cardboard into a valuable gift to be bestowed and cherished. Each participant eagerly distributes his own card while thoughtfully reviewing the information printed on the ones he receives. In that single moment, the card is no longer just a piece of paper with the same information as everyone’s email signature and LinkedIn account. Instead it represents his professional hopes and dreams – the allure of a marque new account, a potential acquirer for his firm or his next employer. Still caught up in the moment, the new cards are safely tucked away in coat pockets less what they represent be lost or forgotten.

A final round of goodbyes commence with solemn vows to “follow up as soon as they get back to the office” or to “run this up the flag pole” and “make sure this gets in front of the right people”. As the group disperses, phones materialize from pockets not holding business cards and are used to send emails to colleagues and superiors about the importance of who they just met and how they had a “high level of interest” and are “very interested in our product”.  All these emails end with a variation of the standard self-congraluatory/self-justification line “this single interaction made the entire conference worth it” as the hopes and dreams are still very alive for now.

Snowy (Chicago, Toronto, Boston) the Monday after the conference. Alarm clock, morning coffee, taking dogs out, getting kids off to school, commute, traffic, coworkers, “how was your weekend?”, “how was the conference?”, status meetings, voicemails, emails, lunch meetings, conference calls, client meetings, commutes, traffic, takeout dinner, kids homework, TV, bed. Days pass with nary a thought of the treasured business cards or the conversations that spawned them until they’re rediscovered in the bottom of a bag while looking for a cellphone power cord. The slightly wrinkled pile of cards is spread out on the desk. Vague memories of the conference filter back but any conversation specifics are overshadowed by the late nights and alcohol. What exactly did this person do? Why did they say they were interested in the product? What was the followup supposed to be about?

A self-compromise is reached. It would obviously be unprofessional to contact them so long after the promised followup date and not even remember the conversation yet it would also be a waste to just throw away such a valuable contact. Instead, the cards are added to the already growing pile on the desk that is going to be entered into an address book and LinkedIn right after checking this email.

Hours later and the pile of cards remains unreviewed and unentered. They are now completely out of site, buried under an avalanche of flight, hotel and car itineraries. The email was in invitation to another conference. This one in Vegas.

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