As our square footage of damp carpet grew, ultimately turning our whole kitchen area into a squishy-ishy mess, we had no choice but to shut it down and call show management to help us locate the source of the deluge.
Plenty of exhibitors give out tasty treats on the trade show floor. And in most cases, these offerings are a delicious draw, as opposed to a critical attendee interaction. However, since my company is a food-marketing firm, food sampling and food-preparation presentations are our bread and butter, so to speak. So you can imagine our panic when a completely unforeseen disaster, courtesy of the host city's water and sewer system, shut down our food-prep kitchen on the second day of a major four-day food-industry show.
Held in Chicago, the show draws a whopping 45,000 people per day. As such, we invest a considerable amount of money in our presence, to the tune of our booth space alone costing approximately $130,000. We offer some samples on the perimeter, but the heart of the booth is a full-blown kitchen where professional chefs whip up delicious treats for what's usually a standing-room-only crowd of salivating attendees.
The first day of the show was a resounding success. Our busy chefs flexed their culinary muscles, and samples from the kitchen flew out of our booth. Traffic was high, and
attendees' interest in our products and services was probably the best we'd seen in all our of our years at the show.
But early in the second day, we had our first inkling that something was amiss. I don't remember who first spotted the issue, but as if out of nowhere, various sections of the carpet in our central kitchen were wet. At first I blamed the moisture on a spill, figuring maybe some sloppy attendees or even our somewhat temperamental chefs had spilled something and hadn't copped to the blunder. Yet as our square footage of damp carpet grew, ultimately turning our whole kitchen area into a squishy-ishy mess, we had no choice but to shut it down and call show management and its official contractors to help us locate the source of the deluge.
When show-management reps arrived, it was painfully obvious that no spill – not even a leak from one of the sinks or refrigeration units – could have produced this amount of water. As they endeavored to locate the source of the problem, our chefs sprang into action, trying to elevate their equipment and stashing food into any safe storage and cooling cavities on dry ground. And to say they weren't happy campers would be an understatement – they were livid. Not only was their creative process interrupted, but also they were literally splashing through the booth. If we didn't halt the water works, they'd soon be leaving a wake.
Roughly 20 minutes after show-management reps arrived in the booth – during which time I'd stationed various staff members around the kitchen to direct attendees away from the flood zone – they finally discovered ground zero: Part of the city's drainage system had backed up, causing the floor drain under our exhibit to overflow. So the liquid in our space wasn't merely clean tap water. Oh no. It was dirty water from God knows where.
Thankfully, facility reps soon worked some magic, and the flow of water stopped. The reps assured me that we could expect dry days from there on out, but given our mess and the fact that chefs weren't doling out delicious morsels, most of the 45,000 attendees were simply passing us by in favor of exhibits with more morsels – and less of a chance of getting their tootsies wet.
We immediately stepped up food distribution at our stations elsewhere in the booth and doubled up on the chocolate items in the hopes that chocolate might indeed save the day, as it so often does. We also worked with the chefs to determine what food could be salvaged and what items they might create for the next day that had enough visual and olfactory appeal to draw in some of the crowds that had bypassed us.
In the meantime, our exhibit-house rep pulled back carpets and repositioned low-lying graphics and exhibitry to ensure nothing was irrevocably damaged. Show management sent over a floor-cleaning team armed to the hilt with wet vacuums, squeegees, and towels. Our exhibit-house rep immediately grabbed a wet vac and went to work like a cleaning woman possessed. If there were an Olympic medal for wet vacuuming, she'd have not only won gold, but also set a speed record in the process.
By the end of the day, the worst was over. The water was gone, and it didn't appear to be coming back. Our exhibit-house rep started the arduous process of replacing the carpet and cleaning and sanitizing the space so we'd be ready for the fire, health, and safety inspections the next morning. Before heading to bed, our team composed a last-minute email blast to attendees, inviting them to the booth the next day with the promise of an irresistible menu.
The next morning we hightailed it to the booth just as the various inspectors were making their rounds. Thanks to our teams who worked tirelessly through the night, the booth passed with flying colors. Our good fortune continued, as attendees drawn by the email and the amazing aromas wafting from our kitchen swarmed our space, helping us to regain some of the leads lost during the second day.
While the flood we endured was through no fault of our own, we learned one lesson that will stick with us for years: If there's any way to avoid it, never select a booth space anywhere near a floor drain. And if that's not possible, make sure that your exhibit-house rep's wet-vac skills are gold-medal worthy.
— Harold Kuenzel, marketing associate, ABC Food Distributors, Long Prairie, MN