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Wake up and smell the Belgian waffles
Broadcast and AV trade shows in Australia have long been the harbinger of technological change in an atmosphere where some semblance of formality was the norm. But in 1994 Julius Grafton’s inaugural ENTECH trade show blazed onto the exhibition scene at Sydney’s Darling Harbour Exhibition Centre, and things began to change.
ENTECH’s foray into the exhibition world couldn’t have been timed better in an industry where broadcast and entertainment technologies such as wireless microphone technology, mixing consoles, lighting, and an array of products were converging at a rapid rate; and this became apparent years later in 2011 when SMPTE and ENTECH (sold in 2004 to Exhibition and Trade Fairs P/L) collocated in adjoining rooms at the Sydney Convention and Exhibition Centre.
ENTECH’s 1994 debut was an instant success along with being noticeably different. Navigating through the myriads of exhibition stands you might be mesmerised by rotating laser lights whilst inhaling volumes of machine manufactured fog, or be assailed by synthetic snow or a burst from a confetti cannon. You could be engulfed in a shower of bubbles belched out of a bubble machine or even dragged into a conga dance with a troupe of Caribbean dancers. And if you managed to tune out the resounding rhythms belted out by the all-too-tuned in DJs, the accumulated onslaught of stimuli would inevitably deliver a significant craving for coffee, or perhaps some gourmet experience. Thus began the era when TAG’s (Technical Audio Group) cafe style exhibition stands were the go-to place.
Long before attending SMPTE or ENTECH, my first trade show at Melbourne’s Royal Exhibition Building was just a short stroll from Lygon Street. Trade shows in those days were a little more mundane. You couldn’t get a decent cup of coffee, and exhibitors and attendees had no expectation of a fine culinary experience at the venue. So my colleagues and I delighted in the evening’s indulgences on great food, coffee, and alcoholic beverages on offer throughout the myriads of eateries that dotted Lygon Street’s famous restaurant strip.
The year was 1989 and the exhibition was IREECON (Institution of Radio and Electronics Engineers Convention). There was an airline strike at the time so I drove the nine hours from Sydney, finally arriving with a voracious appetite. I checked into a Lygon Street hotel and asked the desk clerk crudely, “Is there anywhere around here to eat?” However, in a matter of minutes after my embarrassing faux pas I was dining on veal parmigiana and drinking Peroni beer in Melbourne’s ‘Little Italy’.
Adjacent to our stand at IREECON I recall chatting with Anthony Russo who manned a modest (probably 6x3m) stand featuring products distributed by his then company, AR Audio. However, Russo recently stated that his earliest exhibition stand at the Royal Exhibition Building was a jerry-built endeavour made up from his uncle’s fruit boxes, which he disguised by draping them in velvet theatre curtains. A few years later AR Audio would morph into TAG (Technical Audio Group), and earn acclaim for outstanding exhibition stands. “When we did our cafe stands, we would win ‘best stand award’ against some of the giants,” Russo told CX.
After years of manning exhibition stands, I revelled in reporting on them together with photographing product and personnel; however it was a draining experience. For instance, I’d go from a Sony interview where I’d be engulfed in an in-depth discussions on the technicalities of the 45mm interaxial distance of a 3D camera, and then move on to the next stand where I’d be drilled on how Arri’s like-for-like LED Fresnel drew only 200 watts but was equivalent to a 1000-watt incandescent Fresnel. So by lunchtime on day two of a three-day exhibition I’d be looking for some form of escape. If in Sydney I’d head for the Capitan Tores Spanish restaurant in Liverpool Street where a dish of Paella Valenciana and several stubbies of Estrella Galicia could restore some cerebral stability before returning to the job.
Anthony Russo and the crew at TAG realised the need for an oasis amidst the mayhem, and they launched what was to become their trademark exhibition stands offering great coffee from a commercial coffee machine along with other comestible items in a relaxed atmosphere complete with cafe style tables and chairs and couches.
“We were the first company to do hospitality properly on an exhibition stand. We had a proper cafe with a black and white tiled floor. We took all-comers, and the stand was all themed around meeting and greeting, with people sitting around drinking coffee, and they could stay as long as they wanted. We also had a guy making Belgian waffles at one stage,” said Russo.
TAG’s idea was to draw people to their stand without projecting a ‘shiny suit salesman’ image, instead presenting a hospitality image that would keep people from just browsing and moving on. Professional staff served the coffee and Belgian waffles. “And it was all free. Even today, people remember the Belgian waffles because the smell would permeate throughout the exhibition,” added Russo.
Russo noted that some stands did have coffee, but it was usually for their VIPs and dealers, and if they had a coffee machine it was only in the private areas where the public rarely ventured. He cites a problem he saw with some of the bigger stands: “If you’ve done your marketing properly most people should know every new product that you’ve got. Once you had met your rep and had been shown what was new there was little reason to come back again and look silly standing around on a giant white-on-white stand.”
TAG’s idea was that you could meet someone on the stand in the morning, show them what was on display, then invite them back for sandwiches at lunch time. Russo felt this would ease the awkwardness of someone saying their goodbyes and then returning to the stand later.
To save on costs a contingent of exhibitors would use their sales staff to do the load in and out at exhibitions. The call of duty could also include driving the delivery truck to the venue. “We’ve progressed a lot since those lean times of sleeping in the back of the truck outside the exhibition buildings,” said Russo. TAG now employs specialist stand builders. “Typically, a stand would probably cost us $100,000 these days,” he added.
TAG distributes four major brands, which are Allen & Heath, QSC, Martin Audio and Audio-Technica. And in a world of exponential technical change, who would have foreseen that the resurgence of vinyl records would see TAG’s distributorship of Audio-Technica’s turntables account for around 100,000 sales per year?
TAG and a host of other industry leaders will be exhibiting at the forthcoming ENTECH Roadshow in October 2022. Although ENTECH was sold to ETF in 2004, they in turn sold it back to CX Network, headed by ENTECH founder Julius Grafton in 2015. The exhibition now operates as ENTECH Roadshow and gets on the road in October of this year visiting Sydney, Monday October 10th The Concourse, Melbourne, Wednesday October 12th MCEC, Bay 22 near Goldfields, and Brisbane, Monday October 17th RICC at RNA, Showgrounds.
Footnote: A list of exhibitors at ENTECH Roadshow 2022 can be found at https://www.entech-roadshow.com/who-is-exhibiting
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