Prepare in advance for IWF's offerings

With so many exhibitors and so little time, mapping out your trip beforehand can help you cover the most ground in Atlanta

The International Woodworking Machinery and Furniture Supply Fair — or, simply IWF — is thought by many woodworkers to be the greatest show on Earth. It's easy to see why. Along with its odd-numbered-year counterpart AWFS event in Las Vegas, it's the only place you can go without crossing an ocean to see the wares of more woodworking machinery and supply manufacturers in one place than anywhere else.

Scheduled for Aug. 20-23 at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta, the show offers nearly 1,300 exhibitor booths, presenting everything from large CNC machinery the size of small cottages, to small, elegant cabinet knobs and hardware — and a lot in between. The size of the show can be daunting, with about 800,000 sq. ft. of exhibition space spread over three connected buildings.

With that many booths in that much space, it's easy to be overwhelmed and exhausted, but go home still having missed something. But with careful advance preparation and an ordered plan of attack, the IWF experience can be fun, enjoyable, informative and ultimately profitable.

All your IWF activities are probably based on how much time you're going to spend at the show. Planning is easier if you have a few days to spread everything out. If you'll be there only a single day, seeing everything you need becomes a bit tougher, but still doable. Planning is the key.

Before the show
Start by heading to the official IWF Web site (www.iwfatlanta.com) where you'll find a host of information including an exhibitor's list, a full schedule of the technical seminars, floor plans and advance registration.

Quick tips

  • Drink plenty of water. Don't worry; there are many bathrooms.
  • Take breaks. There are places to sit and relax, so do it. Go through some of the stuff you've picked up.
  • Make notes and refer to them whenever you take a break.
  • Allow more time than you need for wherever you plan to go.
  • It's easy to get lost at the World Congress Center, so keep your pocket guide with you. Be especially careful of Building B--in an M.C. Escher sort of way, the fourth level of building B connects directly to the third level of Building A.
  • Back in your hotel at the end of the day, go through the several pounds of brochures and folders you've collected. Get rid of duplicates and toss out anything you picked up on a whim, but now realize you don't need.
  • There are numerous social events as part of the show. Attend them and network when you can. But resist the urge to stay late. Get back to your hotel at a decent hour and get some rest.

Register now, for two good reasons. First, if you register before July 25 you'll save some money. Before that date, admission badges are $15; they're $25 after that. Second, if you register before going to Atlanta, you don't have to worry about standing in long lines to register. All your paperwork is done; just go to the proper booth to collect your badge. Also, if three or more people from your shop are going to the show, you can register as a "team," bringing the badge price down to an easy $10.

Now, decide what seminars you want to attend and register for them as well. Sign up before July 25 and the seminars are $35; after that, they're $45. (The all-day finishing seminar held July 19, the day before the show starts, is $350, but jumps to $400 after July 25.)Using the exhibitor list and floor plan from the IWF Web site, make a roster of the booths you want to go to. It's best to divide these into two groups — a must-see group and a want-to-see group. You'll appreciate it once you're there. Make a schedule for any seminars or show events you want to see, noting their dates and times.

Once you're registered, a lot of this can be made easier using the "IWF Planner" on the official Web site. This tool helps you find the manufacturers, products and services you're most interested in; gives full information on the seminars; and can even create a personalized show agenda and map with all your selections.

If your schedule allows you time to see the city, do some advance homework to see what's happening in Atlanta during the show. For example, if you get into town before the show Monday, you can catch the Braves hosting the Giants. After the show closes Saturday, you can enjoy a Loretta Lynn concert.

As the show approaches, check the IWF Web site periodically to get updates on the exhibitors and booth numbers, as these can change. And speaking of Web sites, check the sites of every exhibitor you plan to visit on your must-see list. Some exhibitors post new stuff they plan to take to the show, and sometimes list show specials; knowing in advance what they'll have on display will give you an edge.

If you're going to the show specifically to look at a particular piece or type of equipment, it never hurts to call the company and speak to a sales rep about it. Let them know you're going to the show and ask who will be there from the company. Get a name and ask for them at the booth. They'll bend over backward to serve you.

At the show
When you check into your hotel, if it's one of the official show hotels, you'll find a shuttle bus schedule in the lobby. In my experience, the shuttles are very punctual, but be ready for the bus at least 10 minutes beforehand just in case. Make a note of the bus, so you can get the right one coming back.

Atlanta in August is oppressively hot and humid, so dress lightly. Most of the halls are pretty comfortable, but the ones with the big machines tend to be warm. Plus, you'll be going outside from time to time to catch shuttles, etc. Above all, wear the most comfortable shoes you own.

At the show, when you pick up your badge, you'll also get an official show directory and a pocket guide. Use these with the notes you made before leaving home to map out the locations you want to see. Mark your must-see and want-to-see exhibitors — different color highlighter pens work great — as well as the locations of any seminars you'll attend.

Even with a well-planned route of the must-see and want-to-see exhibitors in hand, I've always found it best to start the first day at the show by making a once-through of all the halls. This will not only give you the lay of the land, but will also alert you to exhibitors you may not have considered. Grab as many cards and brochures as you like, but don't make a lot of stops or spend any time at the booths on this trip. Make note of any booths that look interesting and add them to your list.

If you're going with a team, split up for that first once-through. You'll all cover the same ground, but you'd be surprised at the different impressions you get. Again, make notes. When it's time to go through on your planned route, keep the team together. Your bargaining power is greater in numbers, and sales reps are more eager to deal with a contingent from a shop. If your shop has logo shirts, everyone in your team should wear them. Don't have logo shirts for your team? Get some.

The show halls are divided between machinery vendors and supply, services, hardware and upholstery exhibitors. The machinery halls are huge and loud with some booths taking up enough room for a good-sized parking lot; the other halls feature smaller booths and are a lot quieter. Follow your planned route and stick to it as much as possible. Hit the must-see spots first, just in case you have to cut your trip short for whatever reason.