My first major food industry convention as a rookie editor in food trade publishing was the 1981 American Meat Institute annual convention and expo at the old McCormick Place East building. The show was mobbed with thousands of people jamming the aisles and I had to cover at least 50 exhibit booths in two days. Being a rookie, I was eager to start.

As fate will have it, my very first booth (which was a global ingredient company) was manned by two men who looked like something the cat just dragged in — they were standing in the middle of their booth staring at the floor. When I approached them and cheerily explained my visit, they looked up, squinted at me through bloodshot eyes and told me — in very salty language — to go away.

Not a great first impression of an industry convention.

Over the years I’ve attended scores of industry conventions around the world and have visited thousands of booths. Although most people work very hard and long hours at conventions, I’m still amazed when I spot those few folks at booths who are feverishly checking their cell phones non-stop and are oblivious to everything else around them, ignore folks walking into their booths while continuing to talk amongst themselves, are typing away on their laptops in a secluded corner of the booth — or simply standing with a blank expression on their faces.

As a significant company expense, they should be working to draw folks into their booth, not drive them away. But some folks apparently view working conventions as nothing more than an opportunity to get out of the office, do as little work as possible on the floor, and then go out and dine at the most expensive restaurants and party hearty at bars.

While recently talking with the founder, CEO and chairman of a major international meat snack processor, he mentioned several times how he is a “big trade-show guy.”

“We developed our business through trade shows,” he said. “I’m sick of seeing old guys [manning exhibit booths] sitting around reading newspapers when I walk in.”

It particularly annoys him when he asks approximately how much a piece of equipment he’s interested in is, and salesperson at the booth answers he doesn’t know.

“I want to know approximately how much that equipment is,” he iterates rather sternly, “but they want to get you in and ‘work you’. While attending a trade show, I don’t have that kind of time.”

Considering this man’s company operates many plants around the world and he only purchases new equipment, this should be plenty of food for thought for exhibitors.

Conventions shouldn’t be all work and no play; they are great places to catch up with old friends and acquaintances. But during show hours, those manning booths should do their best to draw people into their booths and help those who visit their booths in any way possible. You never know when opportunity will come knocking.

For example, at one major convention shortly after 9/11, very few people ended up attending; in fact, many booths weren’t even erected. Despite the poor turnout, one exhibitor pressed on. Very eager to talk with the few folks who were in attendance, that company ended up selling six or seven major pieces of processing equipment to a Latin American delegation that just happened to pass by.

Here’s hoping your convention exhibits this year are huge successes and that your employees make the most of being there. After all, you never know when opportunity will come knocking.