Navigating NeoCon in Chicago

Someone once told me that what you know is dependent upon where you are — if you want to know something you have to go to where the knowledge is. NeoCon is just that. The knowledge is in the air, you feel it, you see it, you hear it. You have to be there to experience it. It is intense. Your senses get bombarded.

I remember getting back from my first trip and thinking “what the hell just happened?”

So now that I’ve been to a few NeoCons, I thought I’d share some of my thoughts about those past events. Keep in mind that I’m not one of those people who enjoys the limelight; I’m very content to stand on the sidelines and take it all in. However, NeoCon is one of those places where I have to get in on the action, and it’s always a rewarding experience. So hopefully this article helps you get oriented BEFORE you land in Chicago.

(And speaking of Chicago, if you’re planning on seeing a number of landmarks and only have a few days, you better decide now if you’re going to NeoCon or going to see Chicago. It’s only three days, so be realistic; you can’t possibly do both very well!)

On the planning, I typically go one of two routes:

  1. Just go out there with no agenda and talk to people about what they saw and liked, then go see those things. Chances are you will be pleasantly surprised.
  2. Plan ahead and schedule the things you know you want to see or do. BUT, don’t book your schedule solid, that is a big mistake — there is so much going on. You will wind up probably blowing one or two off to see something else.

So, what can you expect at NeoCon? Well, the experience typically goes something like this:

You stand in line and register.

Everyone is there – maybe even all 40,000 of them. The lines can be long — really long — so it’s a good idea to get things planned in advance and avoid the opening rush (just go grab a cup of coffee). You will see a friend –– “Hey did you see the new chair at the Herman Miller Showroom?” “No!” “Hey you have to check it out — it is amazing.” Finding topics to chat about with strangers is easy, too. So don’t be afraid to just say “Hello” and ask whomever you’re talking with if s/he’s seen anything spectacular — or planning to — so far at the event.

You get distracted by everything, because everything is pretty cool.

From there, you’ll get your badge and head for the Herman Miller Showroom. And along the way, you’ll walk by this really cool showroom with a big crowd — of course you have to check it out and see what the buzz is all about. (There’s always something going on to distract and delight you.) You’ll spend 30 minutes listening to a designer talk about his or her latest new product. You grab a brochure and stick a few pens in your pocket. Then you’re back on your way to check out that new chair down the hall.

You mingle.

You begin to fight your way through the crowded hall — it’s pretty packed at this point — and you see another friend you haven’t seen in a few years, or you start chatting with a new face. You decide to grab lunch at the local coffee shop at noon, right after you make it to whatever showroom you’re headed toward. The crowd slowly moves through the hall. (Most people — including you — will have a final destination in mind each day of the conference, but my guess is that 50 percent of the time, you’ll never make it there. There are too many people to talk with and too many demos to see.)

You get the hard sell and lug around lots of freebies.

You really wanted to see that new carpeting, so you take just a quick stop there. Ask a specific question like, “Hey does that come in a darker periwinkle?” and the rep disappears to find the answer. 10 minutes later they emerge but are talking to another visitor — time’s a wastin, so you better move on. But not before the rep hands you a heavy brochure you don’t really want to carry around; find the nearest recycling bin if you aren’t intending to do that much research on the product or company.

This sort of a pattern is everywhere at NeoCon, so you will pick up a ton material. Just be prepared to lug it all around with you. Everyone hands out lots of stuff. A lot of showrooms offer bags to help, it gets heavy quickly. But it is getting it back home that you never think about and packing it all up to get on the plane is the real challenge, so knowing what to recycle before leaving the convention center will be key.

You might be let down by overhype.

Finally you stumble your way into the showroom you’d been aiming for all day. It’s very cool, and the lights, the colors, and the people are all very dynamic. Everyone is trying to out do the competition. They all desperately want to be the talk of the show. And this can sometimes lead to overhype.

But don’t dismay! NeoCon is huge. And although there is no way that you can possibly see the whole show, you can pick a few (keyword being few) things, vendors, or products that you want to see. You will walk miles — so wear comfy shoes — and so choosing some off-the-beaten-path selections might be worth the surprise and delight.

In fact, I think one of the great things about NeoCon is that you always discover something really cool. There will be something that you can use on an upcoming project and lots that you might not. A lot of NeoCon is just plain serendipity – expect the unexpected. That saying, ‘chance favors the prepared mind,’ requires you keep an open mind and an open eye.

You’ll catch some keynote talks (and earn CEU’s).

NeoCon is not just about the showrooms. They have lots of great presenters, go to hear a Keynote talk. It will give you a productive way to rest. You also probably need the CEU’s, but I’d suggest that you go see one that you wouldn’t normally attend — it will further stretch your already stretched imagination. I think NeoCon is as much about the ideas, as it is about the furniture. So keep an open mind for new things.

You’ll party.

There are LOTS of parties. Most are open, some are exclusive, but they almost always are fun. Go and meet people. Share ideas and knowledge. Even if you are exhausted, go! It is always great to hear what other people are seeing and talking about and to hear what they are thinking. A lot of it will shape you own thinking about the event, the industry and design.

You’ll decompress regularly (or, at least, you should).

There will be points during the day where you just need to sit down and relax. You may have to force yourself to do it, but you will be glad that you did. I don’t think you realize how much of an adrenalin rush it is, but you don’t fully appreciate or stop to think that you are going constantly. But hey, it is okay to sit and stop and take it all in. It is a blur, you will be overwhelmed, you will be exhausted, and your mind will be swimming with new ideas.

So don’t be afraid to check out and step outside for a cup of coffee. Take a deep breath, Let your mind just stop and take it all in. Just sit for a moment and watch and listen to what others are talking about. What did they see? Think about what you’d really like to see in the little time that you have, and then plan your next move. You are off to Round 2.

Oh and quick tip: Get a Monster Energy Drink to go…I just discovered those things. They are awesome!

Have a great trip!

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