After the events of Sept. 11, U.S. presence can be felt almost anywhere in the world.
But at the world's largest plastics show, K 2001 in Dusseldorf, Germany, that presence was felt more by absence, and by a sense of sadness in the halls much duller than the siren song of the presses luring customers to booths.
The fact is, the Americans were missing from K 2001, both in attendance and in attitude. While some U.S. stands showcased stickers of American flags, and U.S. pop hits were sung by bands during after-hours cocktail parties, the void left by the scarcity of Americans was as large as the Grand Canyon.
Many Americans did not bother to show up, and who can blame them, with the promise of a lengthy terrorist war clogging the airwaves and the threat of anthrax and other possible atrocities hanging in the air like a vapor cloud.
According to show organizer Messe Dusseldorf GmbH, North American attendance was down about 25 percent from 1998. Behind those numbers are hundreds of stories of U.S. executives getting last-minute cold feet and canceling trips to K.
While the K show always is dominated by Europeans, even booths for U.S.-based companies shared one common denominator this year: exhibitors with German accents.
At one booth for a large U.S.-based mold maker, a lonely young man sat at a conference table displaying a single company brochure. The U.S. officials of that company backed out a week earlier and had scrambled to find a European replacement.
The young man had no knowledge of mold making, of the company or of plastics. He said he was enlisted for show duty by a circuituous route. During my booth visit, he asked me how best to sell a mold. He then asked what a mold is.
At another U.S. mold-components booth, a woman talked on her cellular phone to idle away the day. She could not leave the booth, for the U.S. executives canceled at the last minute, and she was the only person at the booth. She was hired to dole out brochures to passers-by, although she was oblivious to what the company does.
Some other U.S. companies pulled out completely. And many large resin producers brought only top executives, leaving American middle managers at home.
You can't blame companies for protecting their employees from flying, what with travel warnings issued seemingly daily. But what was left at K, even with attendance better than expected, was a yawning hole. Maybe that is appropriate in this so-unusual of K-show years.
Yet, because of that, one could not walk the floor without thinking of the terrorist attacks. And one could not help but be a bit concerned about American interests in Europe, or about the fact that we now have to hide for cover.
K show officials showed some sensitivity to security. The large American flag that once flew over the U.S. pavilion at K was not waving on the building roof this year — so as not to make that pavilion a terrorist target, said Messe public relations senior director Anne Meerboth-Maltz.
In fact, the U.S. pavilion name was reduced, wiped away as a hall monicker. Only the snack bar in the former U.S. pavilion still bore a sign with that name.
Instead, there was a little paranoia. One U.S. association official noticed that the U.S. flag was not displayed with those of the other countries near the north entrance to the Dusseldorf fairgrounds, where most of the attendees streamed into the show. In fact, an empty flagpole graced that entrance, leaving him to wonder.
But a check by Meerboth-Maltz revealed that the American flag indeed was still flying, but only at the south hall entrance this year.
European exhibitors cautiously asked anybody from the United States how things were back home. Some were a bit afraid to inquire for fear that a U.S. attendee had lost a friend or family member in the World Trade Center or Pentagon attacks.
But, if it helps to notice at all, some non-Americans have been as moved as the United States. J. Colin James, general manager of the Hong Kong operations of mold-systems maker Incoe International, said he cried when he saw the Sept. 11 news late at night in Asia. He first thought he was watching a bad action movie before he turned the channel and saw the same horrific picture.
James, from the United Kingdom, was assisting with the Incoe booth. Like so many other U.S. companies, his colleagues from the states did not come.
And who can blame them. Unfortunately, though, the K show provided more evidence that our lives have been disrupted. We only can hope for some future return to normalcy.