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illustration: Regan Dunnick
Heart of Darkness
Suddenly everything went dark. One moment the show was blazing with neon lights and LED screens, and then bam! Nothing. And the silence was deafening.
Plan A
Effectively managing a large corporation's exhibiting program requires solid organizational skills, the ability to oversee multiple teams, and deft reflexes to navigate the constant waves of change that are the new normal in today's world. However, even if you develop this requisite toolkit, you may still find yourself in the dark, figuratively and literally.

As the events program manager for global marketing and communications at Intel Corp., I experienced, shall we say, a "dark" day at the 2018 International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Intel's exhibit was focused on demonstrating how data, particularly 5G networks, will create amazing new experiences that will transform our daily lives. My team and I spent many months planning for a successful event, and being a flawed perfectionist, I wanted everything to go perfectly at this crucial show.

A major part of Intel's CES exhibit strategy is always the Spotlight Stage, where the company shares its customer and industry proof points and experiences through the power of storytelling and "story-doing." I like to call this stage the kitchen table or living room of the booth. This is where attendees gather to listen, share, and experience powerful, moving stories. The first day of CES also marked the Spotlight Stage debut of Häana, an international virtuoso violinist who performed at Obama's Inaugural Ball and is known for her Nordic-influenced music that blends electronica with classical sounds. While she played on our stage, two graphic artists provided visual harmony by creating real-time digital designs on the massive screen behind her as a symbol of our daily data influences. The high-wattage performance filled the exhibit with an undeniable energy that lasted throughout the day.

The following morning started just as strong. The early Spotlight Stage events went off without a hitch, and Häana was in the wings warming up for her next appearance. Word had spread about her performance, and our theater was absolutely packed.

Suddenly, at 11:14 a.m., everything went dark. One moment the show was blazing with neon lights and LED screens, and then bam! Nothing. And the silence was deafening, as if the entire show was holding its collective breath, waiting for the lights to come on. But they didn't.

I started to panic, and a feeling of doom grew inside me. No power or lights? This was a first for me. I'd done shows all around the world and had never experienced a power outage. Granted, the local weather had been unusual to say the least, with torrential downpours on the show's opening day. In fact, I'd never seen so much rain in Las Vegas. On the other hand, security was a growing concern at CES, so I couldn't help but wonder: Was this sudden blackout due to the recent rain or the result of someone's negative intentions?

A million other thoughts soon ran through my head. Should we evacuate the exhibit? Do we ask the attendees seated in the theater to leave? What should we tell them about the outage and any "what comes next" scenarios? Since I was Intel's program manager at the show, our team was looking to me for direction. After some of them asked me what they should be doing, I confided in one of our security managers and basically asked him the same thing. "Victor," he said, "all you can do is remain calm and collected."


Plan B
Still in the dark, I began formulating a Plan B, even as a Plan B was formulating itself. From backstage, the sound of Häana's violin rose out of the silence like a candle in the darkness as she continued warming up. Hooray! I was relieved to hear something normal. And then inspiration struck our lighting manager. He asked Häana if she could give an acoustic performance to the still-packed theater.

Not missing a beat, she walked onto the stage in near darkness, and guests spontaneously illuminated her with their cellphones. She proceeded to light up the stage with sound, piercing the silence and riveting practically all of the show's collective attention on our space. Before long, the audience was clapping along to the beat. Our in-house creative and production teams then sprang into action, captured the moment on video, and tweeted it out with a brilliant line: "The human spirit never loses its power." When she finished her song, the entire place exploded with thunderous applause.

While all of this was going on, I was still preparing some ancillary contingency plans in my head. I knew I had to ensure our teams were calm and patient as we waited for further announcements from show management on the power situation. Some of the staff and attendees were unsettled by the turn of events, so I set about reassuring staffers that everything was fine and instructed them to offer others comfort and bottles of water.

Eventually, we got word that people were allowed to leave the hall, but because of security concerns, no one could enter until show management sorted out the problem. Instead of having 40 second-shift staffers, who were due to arrive at any moment, milling about the barred entrance, I sent word to have them stay put at the hotel. And since electronics get a wee bit finicky when funky things happen to their power supply, I didn't want any minor – or major – explosions taking place if the power suddenly returned. So I put the audiovisual team to work making sure everything was properly powered down to minimize any potential damage.

Finally, following almost two hours of darkness, show-management reps announced that they had located the problem – the previous day's rain had caused a transformer to blow – and they expected that power would be restored within the hour. I immediately mobilized the second shifters so they could be ready as soon as the show floor reopened.

As promised, starting from the far end of the hall, the lights began turning back on one after the other. The doors opened, our second shift arrived, and I dispatched the first shift back to the hotel for some much-needed rest. Next, I crossed my fingers and winced every time the technical crew hit the power button on a piece of equipment. Thankfully, it all worked, and we were full speed ahead.

I learned a lot about my team during the two-hour outage, and I was impressed. It responded quickly and creatively, making the best of the situation. The experience reinforced some key industry tenets: Stay calm. Stay optimistic. Stay realistic. And when in doubt, a little violin music can go a long way.


— Victor Torregroza, events program manager, global marketing and communications, Intel Corp., Santa Clara, CA


TELL US A STORY
Send your Plan B exhibiting experiences to Linda Armstrong, larmstrong@exhibitormagazine.com.

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