The Stress Junkie: Cindy Sample Shares Her Tips for Success

Cindy Sample

She’s a perfectionist who loves a challenge and, in her words, a “stress junkie.” Cindy Sample might have fallen into the trade show industry by accident, but two decades on show floors have reinforced her belief that the job is a perfect fit for her.

As director of trade show operations for National Association of Music Merchants, Sample has worked for the past five years to ensure her organization’s two annual shows—the NAMM Show in Anaheim, California, in January and Summer NAMM in Nashville in June and July—succeed in bringing the music industry together and growing business for their vendors.

At times, she says, keeping a trade show humming feels like an impossible challenge, but it’s a challenge she is always happy she tackled when the booths are packed up and the satisfied vendors and customers travel back to their homes.

“I got hooked after my first show,” says Sample, who experienced her first trade show in 1995 when she worked in the action sports industry. “It just kept drawing me back because it was that creative element where you get to plan this amazing multifaceted event from the beginning, and then watch it come together, and then do it again and again. You keep getting to refine and make improvements. Being a perfectionist, it feeds into that—my need to get it right. It’s just not for the faint of heart.”

NAMM’s centerpiece show is held each January in Anaheim. During the 2018 event, more than 2,000 vendors from every corner of the music industry displayed their wares. In addition to the hubbub on the Anaheim Convention Center floor, the show featured a full slate of musical performances and technology demonstrations. The 2016 NAMM Show was named trade show of the year by Trade Show Executive magazine.

For a trade show coordinator, successfully closing out a show of that scope brings an immense exhale and a sense of gratification. But Sample also loves the more intimate feel of the summer event, which, with less than 600 booths, allows her to walk around and visit with each exhibitor. She is particularly proud of NAMM’s advocacy and charitable efforts, with a portion of proceeds from the trade show going to support music education around the globe.

Since a trade show provides its own type of adrenaline rush, it is ironic that Sample was first drawn to the industry through Action Sports Retailers, which oversaw commerce in the surfing, skateboarding and snowboarding industries. From there, she went to Nielsen Expositions (now Emerald Expositions), where, as director of operations, she worked on well over 100 trade shows and developed the resiliency, creativity and organizational skills she would bring to NAMM in 2013.

Some of Sample’s most influential mentors in the industry are NAMM president and CEO Joe Lamond, and Lori Jenks and David Loechner of Emerald Expositions, she says. It was Loechner, president and CEO of Emerald, who gave her the succinct and sage advice that has carried her through more than one potentially stressful trade show moment.

“What he said to me is, ‘There’s no crying at trade shows,’” she says. “And that’s so true. In a nutshell, you can’t crumble. You’ve got to be strong and confident to get through the many, many challenges you face as an event planner.”

In the past two decades, the challenges that have fallen at Sample’s feet during the course of a show range from natural disasters to health emergencies to forklift accidents. In 1999, a tornado swept through the temporary pavilion where she was helping set up a trade show in Salt Lake City. It was the final day of setup, and no one was injured. Some of the exhibitors, however, were looking at debris where their booths had once stood.

The response from those whose exhibits that remained intact was one more confirmation that Sample had chosen the right line of work.

“To watch the community come together, competitors come together and help each other out, to give these companies that lost space or their tents were destroyed space in their own booth,” she said. “We opened the show the next day. It was truly amazing to be part of something like that.”

Because she entered the trade show industry before cellphones or the internet, Sample has been a witness to a cascade of changes in the way shows are organized, how communication takes place before and during the shows, and the manner in which vendors display their messages at their booths.

“I think back and I wonder how we did shows, how we planned and executed these things on-site without cellphones,” she says. “Honestly, I don’t know how I got my job done without texting. That blows my mind.”

But even if digital technology has made trade shows more efficient and multiplied the possibilities for exhibitors, the heart of a show’s purpose is unaltered by social media or CGI, Sample says. There is enduring value in people from an industry coming together in the same building to make connections, learn about new developments and forge business opportunities.

“There’s still a place for people to come to do business, network, learn and have fun together,” Sample says. “That hasn’t changed.”

“Fortunately there’s still room for face-to-face interaction, and that’s what we do. Online trade shows were becoming a thing, and some people got worried, but I thought, ‘You know, this could add another layer to it, but I don’t think anything will ever take the place of people coming together face-to-face.’”