Business travel often takes one to unexpected places, especially when there’s revenue to be won and deals to close. Such was the case during a stormy week in August of this year, when a national sales assignment brought me to Sam Walton’s backyard.
Northwest Arkansas represents the mecca of Wal*Mart, and the epicenter of brick & mortar retail. Thousands flock here to sell wares, secure shelf space or in my circumstance, provide a service that fuels consumer demand. That’s a glorified way of saying I had advertising space to sell, which is neither glorious nor unique given the ratio between digital sellers to actual buyers (10,000 to 1). There’s no shortage of ad space, just an under abundance of media budgets to spread around.
A re-org at my company dropped me square in the center of the CPG category, which prompted me to assess where we had to go to find new business. Anyone with an IQ greater than ten soon realizes advertising budgets orbit around the locations of major retailers. That represents Wal*Mart and Target headquarters in Arkansas and Minneapolis, respectively.
This meant that I… a full-on Yankee from North Jersey… would make my first professional and personal appearance in northwest Arkansas. When I planned this trip, I gave myself 48 hours at most until the locals caught on to me. They’d find out who I was, where I was from and assess I was way too hyper and over-caffeinated for their tastes. A tap on the shoulder was the moment I feared:
“I think you know why I’m here. I’ll try to say this as nicely as I can, but—"
“I expected this, thank you for the Southern hospitality. Where can I find the airport?”
“Have a safe and quick flight, Mr. Smith.”
My assumptions of what to expect from clients were not skewed one way or another. I’ve come to learn that different regions of the country provide unexpected experiences when it comes to doing business. I’ve always told friends and family alike - assumptions get you into trouble. The result after eight meetings and a happy hour with clients provided a completely unexpected conclusion.
Before I state what it was like for a Yankee to do business in northwest Arkansas, I’ll caveat that my assessment has nothing to do with closing business. It has to do with the reception of ideas. Did the clients (marketers and agency contacts) ask smart questions? Were they engaged with the strategies we presented? Did they provide feedback that was straight forward and easy to process? After twenty-plus years as a salesperson and manager, it’s not hard to assess where you and your client stand at the end of a meeting.
To that point, Bentonville was perhaps one of the best markets I’ve ever traveled to for business! I was thoroughly impressed. In two separate meetings, clients actually processed the information I gave them and then repeated back the most important elements to insure they understood our offerings. I got the impression many folks in Sam Walton world are very familiar with Dale Carnegie books.
To make it even better, there was no shortage of southern hospitality and it meant a lot to Yankee deep in the heart of Dixie.
Of course… we did come into contact with other local elements, both natural and human, that were quite amusing. This by no means reflects negatively on the people of Arkansas. But when you take a kid out Jersey, add some coworkers, and put them dead center in the South, it’s won’t be surprising to hear we ran into some unfamiliar circumstances.
The first instance involved a gigantic and orange insect, the likes of which reminded me of Mothra in old Godzilla movies.
It’s 8:00 a.m., overcast with threatening clouds and we are not one minute into the drive before I spot the beast inches away from my coworker’s head. We’re in the backseat of a Nissan sedan. I’m speechless; the unidentifiable insect is orange, perhaps two inches wide and a dark streak runs down it’s snout. It came equipped with not two, but four wings, an evolutionary advancement that enabled it to sting with ample speed. I didn’t say anything at first, purely from the fact I had no idea what the fuck I was looking at. I finally spoke up after Bugzilla’s movement crackled against the back window.
It was now inches away from my coworker… lurking… stalking… and hunting its prey. The, ‘prey’ in this case was a cool dude from Long Island named Jansen.
After seeing the Orange menace, Jansen lowered his window in the hope the bug would find its way out. Thinking the wind would shift it my way, to the right side of the car, I took action to insure I was not struck down by a stinger packed with venom. I lowered my window to blow it back towards Jansen.
When our female workers saw it (Julia and Amanda), and noticed it’s hairy legs, they grew concerned. We parked and then it buzzed around like a rattlesnake and everyone jumped, including the emasculated men in the backseat. We barreled out of the car! Doors flew open, defensive weapons were sought to no avail and the bug burrowed itself deep into the car’s crevices. Pictures were taken - evidence for medical (or legal) attention, if necessary.
When we returned to the car after our meeting, the orange mosquito on steroids darted straight at Jansen! He then turned to me but bounced off the briefcase bag I used as a shield. Then it zipped off into the Arkansas ether. The insect assassin flew away and I can only hope he found other Northerners to terrify and torment.
There’s redemption in shared misery.
Now we were on a mission to find out what kind of insect stalked us. We spoke to locals, showed pictures and finally came upon someone with enough entomology knowledge to solve the riddle.
“That there looks like a Dirt Daubler.”
“Dirt Daubler, although the one that got me was black, so I might be wrong.”
“Well, what the hell is that?”
“They like dark places, come out of nowhere, usually. One got me square on the tip of my nose when I went into my Daddy’s barn to fetch a fan belt.”
This sounded like a cliché but we confirmed the beast stings. Jansen dodged a bullet! Later in the day I made the mistake of referring to the insect as a Dirk Diggler, a reference to the Mark Wahlberg movie about 1970’s porn, Boogie Nights. Had you witnessed the size of Bugzilla’s stinger, it represented a fair reference, given the two shared an anatomical feature.
This led to our second run in with nature: the razorback groundhog. Moments after our second meeting, we spotted a dark object on the perimeter of a wildflower field. He was chomping away, but unlike regular New Jersey groundhogs, this one had dark fur and fangs. He may have been a Nutria, but there’s nothing sexy about that so we added some local flair to the animal’s name. Surprisingly, I got within ten feet of it, but like the honey badger, he didn’t give a shit. The razorback groundhog eyeballed me, but before he charged, the animal plopped along and then stumbled into the field of pretty flowers.
Another vicious and merciless attack… avoided. The God’s favored us that day.
Other local encounters were centered on human contact, complete with a story from an Uber driver who was recuperating from an unfortunate accident. He hit a deer while driving a motorcycle. We were glad to hear it wasn’t too serious and went to our happy-hour rendezvous with advertising clients.
During the evening, I went to the bar to procure several drinks and noticed a woman asking what news station was playing on the TV behind the bar. The bartender noted it was CNN.
“Good,” she said.
I turned to her. “Good evening ma’am. I’m curious, why do you prefer CNN?”
“I’m not inclined to watch Fox News. I don’t know why anyone would.”
This got my attention. Then, I noticed she was drinking what appeared to be a tall glass of scotch. “Ma’am, are you drinking scotch, by chance?”
“I am. Dewars.”
“Fantastic,” I said. I’m also an avid fan of Scotch, so this stranger and I had a cocktail in common. Then, another question revealed she was from Missouri, or as she pronounced it, Mazzura. I asked if that was the proper way to say the state’s name and was told that’s how Harry Truman referred to his home state.
I’m in Bentonville, Arkansas, traveling on business, and in all the gin joints in the world, I come across a liberal, scotch drinking Truman fan? I wanted to bear hug her! Instead, I toasted my new friend in respect to her choice of alcohol, aversion of fake news and wished her a terrific vacation.
An excursion to Sam Walton’s first 5 &10 store provided me with some new-found respect to Wal*Mart’s founder (he flew a plane to find new store locations and favored pick-up trucks) and a stop at Andy’s for custard solidified the fact Northwest Arkansas is an awesome destination. Coupled with killer ribs from Tusk and Trotter and great coworkers to travel with, I hope to come back again soon.
And when I come upon someone from Arkansas in North Jersey, I will tell him or her our groundhogs are not dangerous, our insects are harmless and I’ll make sure to douse them some fine Northern hospitality.
Which simply means I won’t drop the F-bomb in the first five minutes of conversation.