A Guest Post by Bill Leebens
I’ve been going to audio shows since the 1989 summer CES. Life has changed drastically since then, for both good and ill, and I’ve attended a lot of shows in the intervening 34 (!!!) years. Some shows were pleasant, productive, but ultimately unmemorable. Some shows were memorable for outrageous behavior or events—someday I’ll tell you about the CES room where strippers were giving lap-dances to potential dealers—some shows were memorable for disastrous management, or an atmosphere dripping in fear and impending doom.
But AXPONA 2023? Well, it was…
See more of Bill Leebens wistful ruminations on AXPONA 2023
AXPONA this year was memorable for an improbable, implausible blend of beautiful weather, a great venue, clockwork organization, and a palpably upbeat vibe from both exhibitors and attendees. In other words—it was unique. A singularity.
I’ve gone to shows as a civilian—I attended that ‘89 CES with bogus credentials, which was a lot easier to do in those days—and since then as a pro I’ve gone looking for clients, working for clients, working inside rooms, writing about shows for a couple of digital outlets, assisting a show organizer, and in 2012, I was involved in organizing the NY Show at the Waldorf Astoria. The common theme through all those shows is, ya can’t please everybody. At the NY show, I felt as though I couldn’t please ANYBODY. Exhibitors complained about inadequate electrical supply and lack of support from the hotel; the attendees complained that there wasn’t much to see for their money. Both groups were right.
‘You’re Going to Have to Take all of the Furniture Out’ and Unions
Working on that show, I saw that it wasn’t as easy as my always-cool mentor Richard Beers made it look. Do you think it’s easy to find a venue for these things? Go talk to the commercial sales folks at a big hotel and explain what you need. When you get to, “Oh, and you’re going to have to take all the furniture out of the rooms”—-after they look at you as though you’re insane, 90% will simply say, “We can’t do that.” And unions—where do they come into the picture? That Waldorf show was almost shut down by the IBEW for allowing exhibitors to plug in their own gear. We managed to keep going because I still had a Teamsters card in my wallet, left over from my days as a UPS driver.
Repeat for freight, drayage, and so on. I believe in unions—but anyone who has shown up at CES can tell you how absurd and expensive things quickly become.
AXPONA had its beginnings with a very small show in Jacksonville, Florida, of all places. The next iteration was in Atlanta, and was a step up, despite the pleadings of the hotel staff that none of us should go outside after dark. Following a side-step back to Jax and a small NYC show partnering with CEA, it moved to Rosemont, the Chicago suburb—-and a few years ago, following the sale of the show from founder Steve Davis to Joel Davis (no relation!) of JD Events, the show was moved to the Renaissance Schaumburg Convention Center Hotel, a Marriott property in—you guessed it—Schaumburg. With 500 sleeping rooms and 160,000 square feet in the adjoining convention center, it’s clean, airy, with a friendly and responsive staff.
The Pandemic was a Problem
The pandemic played havoc with AXPONA, with shows first rescheduled and then canceled in both 2020 and 2021. Last year, the show returned with attendance down a bit, and—speaking strictly for me—the vibe was tentative and anxious. My view may have been tainted by illness and family drama, but that’s how it seemed to me.
As you can imagine, April in the Chicago ‘burbs can be pretty risky when it comes to weather. Some previous AXPONAs saw windy, cold, wet, miserableness. This year the sun was out, skies were clear, temps were balmy, trees and flowers were already in bloom. It seemed a bit unreal.
The ‘Era of Quarantine Boredom’
The pre-show mixer is always a good place to judge the mood of the exhibitors. I heard the expected comments about how slow business had gotten following the boom many dealers (and those manufacturers who could actually produce gear) experienced in the Era of Quarantine Boredom. In spite of that, the mood was upbeat, almost ebullient—was it just that folks were happy to see their colleagues? Or did they think business was going to be better?
The optimism extended to Joel Davis, the CEO of JD Events, organizer of AXPONA. Following a couple of scratched shows and last year’s good-but-not-up-to-pre-COVID attendance, Joel anticipated a 15-20% increase over 2022 and record attendance. The packed reception made that prediction seem believable.
Friday Looked Like the Big Day…Then Saturday was Bigger
The general rule of weekend audio shows is that Saturday is the big day. Once in a blue moon, Friday is stronger, but Sunday attendance is always meh in comparison, the lowest of the three days. Seeing the crowds at registration on Friday, well before the 10 am opening, I thought it might indeed be the big day. As it turned out, Saturday was even stronger.
Several months before the show, I was asked by show-runner Liz Smith to handle the seminar programming. Liz and I discussed what had worked previously, what hadn’t, and what might be new areas to explore. It was left to me to talk with prospective moderators and speakers, and make sure everything was kept on-track, including bios and headshots for the show website. I intentionally chose people who were not just experts, but were also amiable, articulate, and had egos in check. Mostly. Star status didn’t hurt.
Bill was the Show’s Seminar Savant
The result can be seen in the show schedule https://AXPONA.com/schedule/ with seminars held Friday and Saturday. Looking at that big empty Schaumburg East ballroom was nervous-making: I envisioned a huddled mass of attendees clustered around the center aisle, and a whole lot of empty seats. As it turned out, all eight seminars were well-attended, with several at max capacity.
It was good to meet with all the participants, and see the seminars go smoothly. The personal downside was that aside from restroom runs, I didn’t see much of the show on those two days.
What I did see was busy hallways, and a lot of excited chatter.
‘A Few Hundred New Fans’
The concerts were well-attended, and well-received. Friday’s was Anne Bisson, always a pro; Saturday’s was Amber Rubarth, who had performed at the 2012 NY show and had made me an instant fan. She made a few hundred new fans Saturday night.
I fear that going on in further detail will sound saccharine and particularly hard to believe, coming from The Audio Cynic. I can’t help it: it was a very upbeat show, produced by a pleasant, professional crew, and I honest-to-God didn’t hear any kvetching. Period.
Over 9,000 Attendees; A, Pardon the Pun, Record
Oh: Joel Davis was right, as the post-event press release showed. Attendance was at an all-time record, 9,115 attendees. Even a crusty old cynic like me likes to hear good news, now and then.
Was a sunny day
Not a cloud was in the sky
Not a negative word was heard
From the people passing by
Get ready for AXPONA 2024 by visiting axpona.com.
Bill Leebens has been a published writer since the age of 15 and has worked in audio since he was 16. He edited Copper magazine while at PS Audio and has also worked in automobile racing, medical imaging, and even as an IRS tax examiner. Bill lives in Colorado with two impatient dogs and several very patient humans.
Reach Bill at: email@example.com
Tom Gibbs says
Nice piece, Bill! You’re looking really well, and I’m so glad to hear that the show and all the seminars were such a success. And really pissed off that I didn’t make it!