Meet the Rob Ickes of rice

Chris JonesMy very first column for Bluegrass Today was written right before the IBMA World of Bluegrass of 2011, held in Nashville. It contained some recommendations for maintaining your health during what can be a very stressful week.

I would write something similar in anticipation of this year’s WOB in Raleigh, but so much has changed in the area of health and nutrition since I innocently wrote the first one three years ago. For starters, it turns out that gluten is now good for you, getting more than eight hours of sleep in a night may shorten your life, and medical journals continue to report on the health benefits of chocolate, caffeine, and alcohol. As soon as they decide that staying up all night playing music, and shaking the hands of hundreds of virus-carrying bluegrass enthusiasts are good ways to boost your body’s immune system, we can consider the IBMA WOB a sort of health ranch with an awards show.

Instead, I thought it might be more useful to try to answer some questions that people have about the social and professional aspects of the trade show. Sometimes it’s difficult to manage all the facets of a convention while accomplishing your business goals for the conference.

I assembled a “panel of experts” to help answer some of my questions, but in the end I mainly spoke to one of the panelists, since one of them never showed up to our teleconference, and the only other “expert” was my uncle Frank, who volunteered because he thought I was saying “kennel of experts” (he loves dogs).

This left me with only one expert, but I think I found a good one: Sidney Rijsttafel. Sidney has attended over 150 trade shows and conventions, all related to producing and marketing rice. I think we can learn a lot from his experience, though he’s from a completely different trade organization. Sidney is president of the RPTL, which I believe stands for Rice Producers of Texas and the Levant. 

I asked him the following questions about trade show strategies, protocol, and etiquette:

CJ: Mr. Rijsttafel . . .

SR: You can just call me “Sid.”

CJ: (relieved) Thanks, Sid. When you attend trade shows around the world like you do, do you tend to see most of the same people year after year?

SR: I would say that I see all of the same people year after year.

CJ: There are bound to be some people you want to avoid, as well as those you’re happy to see. How do you handle that?

SR: Great question. You know, so much of this has changed with the introduction of the vibrating cell phone. Now if you need to cut a conversation short with someone because someone you don’t want to see is approaching, or you’re stuck in a conversation you can’t seem to end, you can simply look at your phone as if you just felt it vibrate, say “sorry, I’ve got to take this” and just walk away.

CJ: How did you handle that situation before the vibrating cell phone?

SR: I used to have to pretend I was choking, but that sometimes led to people giving me the Heimlich maneuver. I learned to fall back on the fake leg cramp. I will say this about the phone trick: you will have to learn how to fake a one-sided conversation. I recommend watching some early Bob Newhart.

CJ: One area in which our trade show may be different from those in your business is that we have professional entertainers, and so we have some characters with big egos that you may not deal with.

SR: Are you kidding? There are plenty of egos in the rice business, let me tell you. We have a guy from Louisiana who’s at every convention, travels with a huge entourage and refers to himself as “The Elvis of Rice.”

CJ: At our trade show there are a lot of people who will be looking all around the room while you’re talking to them, just in case they spot someone more important they should be talking to. Do you have a technique for dealing with that?

SR: I try to throw in some surprising phrase, like “of course if you don’t want the thousand bucks . . .” or “I told them you would never do anything like that . . .” or “that’s when we started making out.” They usually come back to the conversation.

CJ: People tend to get sick after our trade show. Does a person come off looking like a germaphobe if he or she uses plastic gloves when shaking hands, or conspicuously uses hand sanitizer.

SR: Yes. Just plan on getting sick. Consider it part of the event itself. Usually the symptoms really get going the following week, so look on it as a chance to stay at home and reminisce about your trade show.

CJ: One of the problems well-known people—or people who just have a lot of friends in the business—have is that it’s very difficult to get from one place to another without getting hopelessly bogged down in conversation. Do you have a solution for that?

SR: Oh sure we have the same thing. I’ll be trying to get to a seminar I’m supposed to attend and somebody will stop me to show me a sample of some genetically modified brown rice from east Texas. The best thing is to allow your eyes to glaze over a little while looking straight ahead, walk quickly and deliberately, and act like you don’t see or hear anything. If that fails, you know what to do, right?

CJ: The fake cell phone call?

SR: You’re learning!

CJ: Finally, we have name tags on laniards. What do you do if you’re talking to someone whose name you know you should remember, but whose name tag is turned around so you can’t read it?

SR: I think it’s best to avoid looking at name tags anyway. Unless you have a very subtle way of doing it, you’re liable to make someone think, “hey buddy, my eyes are up here!” If you need to make an introduction, just find a way to avoid it.

CJ: How do you do that?

SR: Do I really need to answer that?

CJ: What about awards shows. Do you have them? 

SR: Oh sure, it’s usually the highlight of the week.

CJ: Have you won some yourself? Don’t be modest.

SR: Well, I’ll admit it: Rice Producer of the Year 1998 (that’s our big one), Rice Marketer of the Year (Brown) 2008

CJ: Congratulations. Who’s your longest-running award winner.

SR: We have a guy in Thailand who’s won Jasmine Rice of the Year for the last 15 years.

CJ: Sort of the “Rob Ickes of Rice.”

SR: If you say so.

CJ: Finally, I wonder if you could give your opinion on . . .

SR: Will you excuse me? I have to take this call.