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The countdown is on. April 9 marks the beginning of the 2011 NAB Show. Exhibits open at 9 a.m. on Monday, April 11. Are you visiting? Are you prepared?

There are several ways to plan a visit to NAB, and some are better than others. I've been fortunate enough to attend a number of NAB Shows, wearing all kinds of hats. I've visited as a curious engineer, chief engineer with POs in hand, general manager, manufacturer exhibitor, equipment salesman, trade magazine editor and, more recently, small business owner. Regardless of the size of my capital equipment or expense budget, it didn’t take long to learn from more seasoned visitors how to get much more out of the event by planning well before leaving home.

Regardless of the purpose of your visit, the sheer size and number of people and distractions at NAB and in Las Vegas make visiting NAB a 3-D experience. Not to be confused with 3-D TV, these three “D”s are dizzying, dazzling and daunting. The purpose of this tutorial is to give you the best odds in town to prevail.

The first phase of NAB preparation is to get your transportation and lodging reserved right now. Many flights and rooms are already booked, and the cheap seats and economy rooms are disappearing fast. Some are already sold out. Think twice before you rent a car, because convention center and hotel parking is expensive, and the traffic is atrocious.

The agenda

It seems that more than a few visitors don’t think much beyond travel reservations until their feet hit the exhibit floor. These folks are pretty easy to spot the day the exhibits open. Their agenda consists of three words: See the show. Many start by standing in line to fill out forms and obtain a visitor’s badge. You, of course, know to preorder your visitor’s badge at the NAB website. Ask your local company salesperson or manufacturer’s representative for an exhibits-only registration code.

Most NAB novices start by either walking down the first aisle by the first entrance, and then zigging and zagging their way across the exhibit halls, or they head to their favorite major manufacturer’s exhibit and spend the next few hours waiting in line behind others to get one hand on a tripod handle or a finger on a keyboard. The experienced NAB visitor spends the first day visiting the more obscure and quieter booths, saving the largest exhibits for later after the initial crowds have subsided.

Many first-time visitors are overwhelmed with the technology and overloaded with flashy Las Vegas showmanship. They wander about the floor, drawn like magnets to the biggest exhibits and live stage demonstrations, only to return home with tired feet, wondering what they just saw. Frustration and face-palms set in when inexperienced visitors learn from reading Broadcast Engineering’s post-NAB coverage and reviews that they missed some less-than-obvious but highly significant presentations on the exhibit floor.

Other visitors schedule their itineraries so tight, with breakfasts, lunches, dinners, conferences, programs and sessions, that they can only afford to spend a few minutes in the booths they planned to visit. By spreading themselves so thin, tightly scheduled visitors can only hope to accidently discover unforeseen highlights in booths they didn’t intend to visit while moving about the exhibit halls. Even then, to stay on schedule, there is little time to eavesdrop on impromptu product demonstrations, ask questions or do much more than request literature.

Do the math

Most visitors don’t spend every possible minute of all four exhibit days dashing from booth to booth. It’s more common for visitors to be in town for two or three days. Some, believe it or not, will attempt to see everything in one day and fly home that night. Others will call a couple of 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. days with two-hour lunches a complete visit.

Let’s do the math. There are more than 1500 exhibitors at the NAB Show. The exhibits are open for a grand total of 32 hours, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Wednesday and 9 a.m. until 2 p.m. on Thursday. This allows the super visitor — one who is on the exhibit floor every possible minute, has the ability to move from booth to booth in nanoseconds and never stops at a rest room, eats or gets a drink of water — to see all 1500 exhibits in the 1920 minutes exhibits are open, by spending no more than 77 seconds in each booth.

A more realistic number for a well-prepared visitor is about 50 exhibits over the course of the entire show. This amounts to approximately one exhibit visit every half an hour, with reasonable time allotted for lunch, lines, walking from booth to booth and comfort stops.

Doing the "don’t see"

Next in preparation for the NAB Show is editing your must-see list down to something manageable. Rather than creating a must-see list from scratch, the best way to identify your must-sees is by deliberately eliminating what you don’t want to see. Review the exhibitor lists, and instead of underlining or highlighting those you want to see, cross off those you’re certain are of no interest to you.

If, for example, you are a sports TV program producer, you probably have no interest in AM transmitters. For that matter, you probably don’t have much interest in FM or DTV transmitters, antennas, towers or EAS receivers either. Cross them off your list, one by one. Maybe you foresee a possibility that you might need a fly-away uplink for a potential new project you may be invited to bid on. You notice as you are reviewing the exhibitor list and booth maps that some satellite fly-away uplink booths are in the middle of the area generally filled by transmitters and antennas. This is why you don’t want to summarily ignore certain sections of the exhibits without some pre-show thought and research.

Not only should your must-see list include what you need in the immediate and foreseeable future, but you should also allocate some time to investigate what you think you might need a year or two from now. It’s difficult to intelligently discuss or identify a budget, and know capabilities and limitations, without a good knowledge foundation. It’s even better if you’ve collected some business cards from experts you can count on when the time comes.

Once you have developed your don’t-see exhibit list, sort what remains into a must-see list by booth numbers to avoid wasting time crisscrossing the floor. If there is more than one person from your facility visiting the exhibits, teamwork will make it easier to gather and share even more detailed information.

When planning your itinerary, allow sufficient time to meet and take breaks with friends and acquaintances, and to stand in line for lunch, taxis, trams and shuttles to and from the convention center.

Dressing the part

Dressing for the show is as much science as it is art. TV can be a dirty business. T-shirts and blue jeans may be the uniform of the day at your regular gig, but nobody ever went wrong wearing a coat and tie at NAB. Dressing as a successful businessperson will gain you more instant respect than your favorite 20-year-old Grateful Dead T-shirt will. Regardless of your personal fashion statement, the most important clothing items worthy of serious scientific selection are your shoes and socks. Miles of daily walking on the exhibit floor and to so-called nearby destinations are guaranteed to make your puppies howl.

One tried-and-true survival tip is to wear thick, 100 percent cotton socks and the most comfortable shoes you can find. It’s even better for your feet to bring along a couple of pairs of comfortable shoes and alternate them at least daily. Black leather athletic shoes are always in style. They match most business suits and some people who notice them will comment that they wish they had worn some too.

The worst thing you can do is wear a brand new pair of shoes. Put a few break-in miles on any new pair before you pack. This will loosen up the shoes and verify that they either are or aren't going to destroy your feet or give you an ankle blister the size of a Miata. More than a few uninitiated visitors with new and/or uncomfortable shoes have wiped out their feet the first day of the show and spent most of the rest of their visit recovering in their hotel rooms. After a long winter of a sedentary, indoor lifestyle, it’s also a good idea to get your legs and feet in shape with some regular walking exercise in the weeks leading up to the show.

If you're not a regular business traveler, make and follow a packing list. It will save you from panic and overnight delivery charges when you discover that you left your business cards, credit cards, driver’s license, visitor’s badge or must-see list at home. Start your list today and jot down everything you should bring as you think about your visit during the days leading up to your departure. A well-thought-out packing list and a daily must-see schedule is your best bet at NAB.

That being said, good luck and see you on the NAB Show floor.