Or, How to Avoid the Utter Humiliation of Being Thrown Out of a Hotel Room by Your Favorite Audio Icon
By Marc Phillips
“The customer is always right.”
I spent 18 years in retail and restaurant management, so I know that old adage very well. But one day I was attending a management seminar with one of my former employers, and the CEO of the company said something to us that was really interesting and provocative. “Sometimes you have to fire some customers,” he told the crowd. Later in my retail career I had to quietly adapt that rather blunt and striking decree into something a little more practical: “If I’m losing money by dealing with you, by definition you are no longer my customer.” Most customers would probably become quite agitated if you said this to their face, but that’s sort of the point—you say one thing to your customers to preserve your base and build sales, but you actually do the other thing for the very same reasons.
I started thinking about this line of thought while noticing—and probably audibly complaining—about certain trending behaviors by attendees at high-end audio shows. Shelling out $25 or more to attend one of these shows can and will foster particular feelings and attitudes, most notably “I want my money’s worth.” This attitude, however, can get you into hot water for the singular reason that attending a trade show is not the same as walking into a retail outlet and demanding excellent customer service for your hard-earned dollar.
That’s why I’ve proposed these three unwritten rules for high-end audio show attendees—not because you’re all driving me crazy and I’m ready to snap, but because I really don’t want to enforce any of these rules. I just want people to understand the reasoning behind them without having to look like an unbelievable jerk for merely bringing it up.
Rule One: “Sorry, No Public Restrooms”
As a fellow audiophile who spent many years attending trade shows before going behind the scenes, I totally get the fact that when you have to go, you have to go. Even though there are plenty of public restrooms downstairs in the lobby, have you seen the line at the elevators? Look, every single exhibit room has a bathroom in it, and trade show attendees should have the right to use the facilities if necessary…right?
Not exactly, and I’ll explain why. A couple of years ago I was exhibiting at CES with one of my European manufacturers. I was discussing something with him—sales strategies, upcoming products, what to have for lunch—and he suddenly looked toward the bathroom door in our exhibit room with a mixture of shock and pure, unbridled anger. “Who was that guy who just came out of the bathroom?” he asked. I turned around and indeed a perfect stranger had exited our bathroom and was now heading down the hall toward the other exhibit rooms. He didn’t even have the decency to come into our room to hear our system—he just ran into our bathroom and then ran back out.
“All of my money is in the bathroom! My passport! If that guy had taken anything, I’d be totally screwed!” He was absolutely right to be furious, of course. At audio trade shows, the bathrooms have to serve as our storage and staging areas. Not only do we have our valuables and personal belongings in there, we also have extra components and expensive cables that can easily be stashed away in coat pockets behind closed doors. Plus, not every hotel puts a lock on the bathroom door—I know, I can’t believe it either—so when you barge in you might catch your favorite audio personality in a very private moment.
There’s not a lot we can do to prevent this. I hate the idea of posting a DO NOT ENTER sign—it’s the first thing you’ll see when you walk into the room and it’s a very negative first impression at that. I’m merely bringing it up because it’s becoming a more common behavior with every show we do. My own semi-effective strategy for dealing with bathroom requests is to say “someone is already in there.” But that doesn’t work when people just dash in and dash out without even asking permission. At some shows you’ll find hospitality suites sponsored by some of the audio magazines, and that’s always a great idea for the Vesicare crowd. Better yet, the hotel could just open a room on every floor so people can freshen up occasionally. Until these practices become the norm, however, it’s a genuine dilemma—I don’t want to be the insufferable prick who tells you no, you can’t use my bathroom. But I may have to.
For those of you who continue to rush into bathrooms without asking permission from the exhibitors, you might even find a security guard waiting for you when you come out. I’m not saying that it’s already happened—I’m just saying that I won’t be surprised if it does. And I’m not even going to bring up the show attendees who come in, drop the kids off at the pool, and then thirty seconds later everyone in my exhibit room suddenly clears out. It has happened to me, and more than once. As my high school journalism teacher used to say when I’d ask for a hall pass exactly ten minutes into each and every class, “You need to regulate yourself.”
Rule Two: “Please Do Not Touch”
One of my oldest audiophile stories involves a dealer at a trade show who once told me not to breathe on his turntable. He had it placed on top of an impossibly high equipment rack, and I had to practically stand on my tiptoes to see what it was. (It turned out to be a Versa Dynamics 1.0 player, the first and only one I’ve seen in person.) For years I used him as an example of how NOT to treat potential customers—I never stepped foot in his store as a result of this exchange—but now I’m not so sure he was wrong.
I’ve seen show attendees do crazy things in the exhibit rooms. At this year’s RMAF, I witnessed the following things in my room alone:
- A man who started crawling around behind my equipment rack to see all the connections, and then bumped the rack with his big audiophile butt while a record was playing. A rare, expensive record.
- Another man who started to furiously rub his thumb on the raised company logo on the plinth of my turntable—once again, while a record was playing.
- Yet another man who was so enthralled with the feel of the volume knob on my preamp that he kept turning it up and down, up and down, while a roomful of people were trying to listen to a delicate classical piece. He finally turned it all the way down and then walked out of the room.
- A woman with a beautiful set of painted fingernails which she used to scratch at the silk dome tweeters of my $12,000 loudspeakers. Do you know the scene in the 1990 film Miami Blues with Alec Baldwin and the Hare Krishna in the airport? That’s what I wanted to do to this woman.
If you were in my house and you did any of these things, you would be asked to leave and you would never be invited back. Again, I hope I never have to kick someone out of my exhibit room, but all four of these people came perilously close to being the first. Paying $25 to attend three days of an audio show does not entitle you to complete and total access to everything, especially when it includes the sudden and heartbreaking depreciation of my current demo stock.
Rule Three: “No Requests”
For years audiophiles have been trained to bring their favorite music with them whenever they audition equipment. This is especially useful when visiting dealers, especially ones who have taken the time to carefully tune their showrooms so that most types of music sound absolutely incredible to the customer’s ears.
At trade shows, however, we don’t have that luxury. We usually have just one day to bring everything in, set it all up and dial it in. As you probably already know, hotel rooms can be problematic when it comes to getting good sound. Noisy AC units, uneven floors and flimsy walls all conspire to prevent us from achieving great sound. At RMAF I had to deal with big speakers in a very small and very live room. So while the system I used can kick some serious butt in a more friendly environment, totally cranking it up at the show would result in a less-than-satisfactory listening experience for the people in the room. So for that RMAF show attendee who kept asking me to turn up the volume and to play some “real rock and roll,” the answer was no.
You see, my job as an exhibitor is to make good sound in a hotel room. That means I have to use musical selections that show off the strengths of my system. So when you hand me that bootleg Napalm Death CD-R and ask me to play it on a system with tiny mini-monitors and a low-powered SET, you’re setting me up to fail in a roomful of people. I won’t do it. Most room exhibitors will do it, and a few I know openly solicit the attendees for their musical choices because, as one person has told me, “That’s the best way to discover new music!” But some will not, and it’s important to know why and to not hold it against them.
Here’s the perfect example of why I no longer want to take requests from show attendees unless I know the recording already. A reviewer once walked into my exhibit room with his special trade show mix CD. We accommodated him because he was already reviewing one of our products. Unfortunately, his mix CD sounded awful. Every track was thin and harsh and barely listenable. It almost seemed like he was playing a trick on us to see how we would respond. I kept looking at the other people in the room who were all wrinkling their noses, shaking their heads…and leaving. I did notice one guy who walked into the room—a reviewer from a major publication who was covering that show. Before I could yank that odious CD from my player, he walked out. Later, in his show report, he mentioned that the sound in our room was thin and harsh and barely listenable. So to that other reviewer with the questionable hearing, thanks buddy. Thanks a lot.
Again, how do you enforce this rule without looking like a total asshole? It’s tough. But I tried a new strategy at this year’s RMAF that worked fairly well: I played only vinyl in the room. My inner being felt whole and complete each time an attendee handed me a CD or even worse, a flash drive, and I was able to say sorry, I can’t play that. In fact, I only played one LP the entire show that wasn’t from my own personal collection, and it sounded pretty darned good. But that’s the rare exception.
(And if you ask me to play Diana Krall and you huff and puff and exit the room in a dramatic fashion when I tell you I don’t have any Diana Krall, I might tell jokes about you for years and years. Just so you know, Russian guy from New Jersey with the cheap Hawaiian shirt.)
It comes down to this. It’s easier to say the customer is always right. It’s better to run your business that way. One of my favorite dealers likes to say that he’s been around for decades and hasn’t has a single unsatisfied customer in all that time—which of course is crucial to his success and his excellent reputation. But exhibitors are not the shopkeepers. We’re customers, too. You may have paid $25 to get in the door, but we paid thousands and thousands of dollars just to get into our exhibit rooms. That doesn’t include the price of our sleeping rooms, travel expenses and food—and being away from our businesses for a week or more. You may have expectations about the way you’re treated at these shows, but so do we.
Right now is a great time to be an audiophile. When I first joined the hobby, there weren’t high-end audio shows every six weeks. If you couldn’t get into CES, then you didn’t get to see very much—only what trickled down to your nearest hi-fi shop. These days you can see—and, more importantly, hear—all sorts of exotic audio equipment several times a year. If you’re lucky enough to live in places like Denver or Chicago or Washington DC or San Francisco, you don’t even have to leave town to do it. But that can all change if it becomes too costly and too frustrating to do trade shows anymore—especially if attendees don’t seem to appreciate our hard work.
In other words, I don’t want to ever have to shout the words “No audio for you! Two years!” But I will if I have to.