How a Tradeshow Changed My Perception of Working in Construction

Louis Bedigian

As a writer, sometimes it feels like my entire life is consumed by conferences. From press-driven shows that lure massive crowds to niche events that attract 200 individuals, I thought I had seen them all. But it wasn’t until I attended the 2019 Michigan Construction and Design Tradeshow that an event actually changed my perception of the industry it was designed to support and promote.

Hosted by the Construction Association of Michigan (CAM) at MotorCity Casino in Detroit, the trade show featured a handful of workshops and about 70 exhibitors to meet and explore. While there were a number of interesting displays, the coolest turned out to be a John Deere backhoe simulator brought by OE324, an operating engineers labor union. Designed to demonstrate what it’s like to operate a backhoe (particularly for those like myself who had no idea), the simulator proved to be incredibly challenging.

Unlike the driving simulators at the Detroit Auto Show, a backhoe is not something you can jump into without experience. It included real John Deere controls (two joysticks, a steering wheel and pedals) and two different lessons. The first challenged you to dig a trench, while the second required the operator to load a truck. Both were much more difficult than I had anticipated. I quickly discovered that it takes a deep level of skill and an even higher level of patience to successfully operate a backhoe.

And the results spoke for themselves: by the end of my second round, I had incurred more than $28,000 in property damages!

Backhoe simulator

Backhoe simulator

Wide Range of Exhibitors

Most trade shows stick pretty closely to one industry, but this one featured a much greater variety of exhibitors. In addition to the firms directly related to construction, the CAM event attracted a cleaning supply manufacturer (Epic), an oil and gas enterprise (Sunoco) and an inbound marketing agency (The Whole Brain Group), among others.

FabricAir, which designs and produces custom air dispersion and air distribution solutions, used an inflatable marijuana leaf to draw attention. The leaf is normally used at conferences for legal cannabis producers (a growing sector for the company). But Brad Bonnville, territory sales manager for Michigan and Ohio, has found the leaf to be a popular visual and talking point at any conference he attends.

And that was the key reason why so many exhibitors came: to get people talking. There was a hungry, almost startup-like attitude from these sales folks, marketing professionals and CEOs who were eager to connect.

During the conference, I had the pleasure of speaking with Bruce Kopytek, VP of commercial architecture at Fieldstone Architecture & Engineering. He told me about how he was laid off during the 2008 recession, which inspired him to start writing. His publisher wanted a book about the now-defunct retailer Jacobson’s. He wasn’t sure that was the right project until he began conducting interviews and discovered the human stories behind the department store. He’s eager to share more of his story, which we plan to feature in a future post.

Drone Bros

A New Appreciation

The Michigan Construction and Design Tradeshow had a profound effect on the way I view this incredible industry. I was already aware of the many great men and women who make up the world of A/E/C, and this event only served to bolster my impression of the work they do every single day. And after trying my hand at the backhoe simulator, I have a newfound appreciation for what it takes to be on the frontlines of construction.

CAM booth