Alan Traino is the Chairperson and leader of NEAF (Northeast Astronomy Forum and Telescope Show). On the first day of NEAF 2010 (Saturday, April 17) I was lucky enough to spend some time with Alan and get his views on the largest astronomy and telescope show in the world. Before I begin the interview I have to tell you something about Alan. This man can walk fast. I mean really fast. That's a good thing, too, because when you're trying to coordinate a show with approximately 130 vendors and thousands of attendees and numerous speakers you had better be able to walk fast!
How are you doing?
How is the show going?
I think it's extremely successful. I'm looking out at the floor – you know we added probably about 30% to the floor this year. It's been crowded since this morning and our keynote speakers are talking so that means there could be up to 1,000 people in the theatre at this very moment. So what happens is it's like a sine wave. The floor gets crowded, another talk goes on, and then it gets a little softer, and then they all come back. So throughout the day you'll see waves. Attendance is way up from last year. I don't have an exact number but I have a basic idea so we're really happy with that. It seems like a very smooth – I want to say mellow day. Maybe it's the weather. Everything is smooth and gentle. We've really had no problems. We're moving along. Ahh – we have had a lot of problems. A volcano has caused a severe problem. Chris Lintott is stuck in England and he can't appear today. (Editor's note: Chris Lintott is the host of the BBC's The Sky at Night.) So, Chris is going to do a live webcast from England right here. Amy Mainzer is also not showing. I don't have a reason why she's not showing. Other than that it's a great crowd, we've got great vendors. There are a lot of activities for kids. Things are going well.
I heard that kids were a big focus of this year's show.
Yes. The main reason I would say I do the show is to promote astronomy outreach and I'm a firm believer that if we don't get our youth involved in this hobby the hobby is going to go away. There's not a lot of young people coming into the ranks of amateur astronomy and I want to do something about that. So to do that we have diversified the theme a little bit and we have kids activities. We have a whole kids corner here with science activities. We've also got the planetarium going. We brought in the birds – did you see the birds?
No, I didn't.
If you go all the way down on the right there's a birds of prey (exhibit). It's just an exhibit but it has large birds of prey – owls, eagles, and they actually do a whole show and birds fly around and the whole bit. Something else to peak their interest. It's not astronomy related but it's kid related. It's another thing to get them to come back next year. We were hoping to gain at least 1,000 kids this year. We know that tomorrow the Meteorite Men are doing a presentation in the main theatre and we're expecting quite a crowd for that. So, I fully believe 1,000 kids is within reach.
That sounds great. How are the vendors reacting this year? Are they pleased with the show?
I have heard from a few of them – they are extremely happy. My observation – I notice when people are walking out the doors with large boxes. I haven't seen as many large boxes going out the door but the vendors are telling me they are selling stuff. As long as they're selling stuff. I look at it this way – I've done my job. We've created a venue, we've filled it with vendors, we have advertised it, it's been in magazines. So we've got everything in place. A lot of vendor sales are based on numbers and I can't play with those numbers. Some vendors will do extremely well and others will not do quite as well. That's all their numbers and who's a smart marketer for a show. The products you select to bring here have a lot of influence on how it comes out. If you're bringing the same stuff that nine other people have you're taking it home. I've always told vendors to bring unusual stuff, closeouts. Don't bring the norm. The norm is available everywhere. Everywhere.
Who chooses your speakers?
And what criteria do you use?
The best possible name I can get. I have many, many close friends in this industry and hobby. I'm friendly with different venues of people so I have many resources that I can go to and ask for professional opinions and they'll bring up a name. I'm always trying to get the best possible A-list people. Always. We are very successful. Over the years NEAF's reputation – it's quite interesting. When I invited Chris Lintott I set the bar pretty high. I mean BBC Sky at Night. He's in demand. I sent the invitation. I didn't hear anything for awhile and then I got a phone call directly from Chris. We started talking and he said "you know I've checked you out". And I was like "Ohhhh". And he said, "your show is unbelievable and it would be my pleasure". So that tells me that NEAF if you check it out it has a very good reputation and it makes higher-end speakers want to come. We don't pay our speakers a lot of money – we can't afford it. We try to use the hook – children, outreach, furthering the hobby. These are all the things we're trying to do.
Next year is the 20th year, correct?
So I really gotta work hard, huh?
Any particular plans or ideas?
It's going to have to be something… Can I get through today? Or tomorrow? I already have a couple tricks up my sleeve. I'll tell you this, Chris wants to be here and Chris told me whether he has to be in the audience or on the stage next year he's coming. So, I said to Chris, "well, as long as you bring a friend or two that'll work for me". And Chris said, "I think I can work on that". That's all I'm going to say. I'm not going to mention any names but I'm pretty sure I would really like to have Chris come back so we can see him live and in person. So, that's one speaker. I have another one. A couple cards. The other thing that's really nice. In the early days of NEAF trying to get a vendor – I can remember 6, 7, 8 years ago dreaming of having Astro-Physics. Dreaming of having Astro Haven domes. Dreaming of having Sirius domes of Australia. Why would they come here? And, every year I made the calls and I told them my name and click. You know I mean? It's too far. How many people? Last year we had 1,000. You know what I mean? And every year a little vendor would come and I guess he would go back and the word would get out. And the next year a couple more. And the next year all of a sudden the phone would ring and it was Astro-Physics or Televue. Al (Nagler) is a member of our club and Al has supported us. To be able to get Astronomics to come and APM from Germany and William Optics is back again and PlaneWave. The scopes and the equipment here is just mind boggling. I don't know if you have taken pictures.
I have taken pictures.
I mean some of these dobs – 40" dobs, 36" dobs. We've got 8" refractors, 7" refractors. There's a lot of big stuff here this year. Big dobs seem to be becoming popular again this year. But fast dobs – short, fast dobs. I'm sorry I didn't finish. So because of every year getting better it got easier to call the vendors and it got easier to go for higher-end vendors. And it also got easier to go for speakers. I can tell you now I can get any president of any company on the phone instantly. And I'm serious. That was a dream years ago. I'd call up a company and "hi this is Alan Traino from Rockland Astronomy" and they'd never even heard of it. Oh no and click. Same thing with the speakers now. Speakers come up to me and volunteer to speak next year. OK. So it's gotten much easier.
And for you as an individual – has it gotten any easier at the show? I've been following you around for the last 10 minutes and you deal with a lot of hassles.
I deal with a lot of stuff. Once the show is running like now, once it opens it basically kind of runs itself. I've got a good staff. I've got a lot of people. In general there's not a lot to do right now. Little issues like the one we just dealt with – you heard what happened – that's a little issue. You've got to expect these things. And the other thing is you can't get upset because then you're going to ruin your whole day. So, this morning you saw me in my orange shirt and my jeans and about 10 o'clock I was done working and I made a transformation. Instead of walking around like the boss in charge in jeans and a t-shirt I kind of feel I look like I'm the boss. (Editor's note: at this point Alan was wearing a suit.) I feel better about myself. I walk around with my head held high and I'm enjoying watching everybody enjoy the show.
It's been a great show. I'm enjoying it so far. Thank you very much Alan.
It's my pleasure.