There have been many changes since the start of the COVID crisis. For one the frequency of articles that start “something something COVID crisis” have sky rocketed and I’ve never started so many emails with “I hope you are well” and meant it with genuine concern.

But one change was a loss that I didn’t appreciate right away but one that is starting to have a big impact on my life… the loss of the research trade show.

Research trade shows have long been a unique place to bring together people from a diverse range of industries with the shared love of research. For example Lab Innovations, one of the largest in the UK, attracts almost 4000 people and has 150+ stands filled with exciting lab doohickies, and even more importantly, often a stand showing off this very magazine.

These wonderful events have always filled me with a sense of giddy excitement. The thrill of seeing who’s there this year, the trepidation of knowing if they’ll have the things your looking for, and finally the pure joy of bringing home a giant bag a freebies.

For as long as trade shows have existed they have been the primary outlet for companies to give away random items plastered with their logo in the hope of persuading people to buy their particular scientific fiddly thing. It makes sense as well, as the idea of picking up a business card is much less appealing than picking up a free bottle opener. A bottle opener you might use, a business card is either going straight in the bin or if it’s lucky may find a useful role fixing a wobbly table.

Now I realise some would argue that trade shows offer much more than just freebies but I’m fairly sure that can all be replaced by a decent website and some interactive HTML 5 animations. But the chance to pick up a free ruler or a shot glass with an amusing optics pun is something that is utterly irreplaceable and the COVID related loss of trade show freebies really hurts.

Just yesterday I broke a mug on which a green cartoon dog invited me to buy my optical components from a norse god. Who knows when I’ll be able to replace it now. For the first time in years I’ll have to have my coffee in mugs that I actually paid for.

And it cuts deeper than that. My supply of post it notes is down to it’s last 16 packs, my free pens are all but completely gone and yesterday it took a whole 20 minutes to find a USB stick. In the pre-COVID time my home, office, lab, car and bag were awash with a million of these each in different colours, shapes and sizes.

A long time ago someone once told me of a place where I could buy post it notes and pens but now it seems like a distant legend. Apparently you need to actually pay money for these things. At trade shows you could have all you could carry in exchange for a business card and a promise that you’ll “be in touch”.

But I suppose this is just another COVID change that we’ll all have to adapt to. Trade shows will be back one day, with their bounty of free stuff . I can only hope that the crisis is over before I wear out my free t-shirts as I might actually have to investigate a ‘clothes’ shop. Fingers crossed it never comes to that.


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