Last November in Dusseldorf, Germany, the world’s largest safety tailgating party was held.

Well, not exactly.

Officially, the event is known as A+A 2009, International Trade Fair for Safety, Security and Health at Work, organized by the German firm Messe Düsseldorf.

But to this American visitor, unaccustomed to the culture of German trade fairs, it seemed like a sprawling party. Part rock concert, part fashion show, part manic Manhattan crowd at rush hour. Most men visited A+A wearing suits and ties; most women wore black skirts, black tops, black boots and stockings. Dusseldorf is Germany’s fashion capital, and nearly everyone, everywhere wears black. Very few jeans and windbreakers were seen at A+A.

Beer, only the German variety of course, flowed from most every booth, or so it seemed. And the accommodating bartenders and hostesses would keep refilling your tall, thin beer glass until you threw your hands up and said, “No more.” Many also offered expresso bars. Wines and spirits. Sandwiches.

Fashion shows were held throughout the show days on a carpeted catwalk, with sleek Euro chic models sporting the latest in waterproof yellow, red, and orange hi-viz jackets and trousers. Three rows of seats surrounded the catwalk, occupied by serious men and women dressed in black, legs crossed, arms folded across their chests, as though they were judges. Behind the seats stood attendees, three or four rows deep. Eight to twelve male and female twentysomething models danced, marched, clapped and posed to pounding electronic beats, wearing wool knit caps, rainwear, silver and blue skin-tight body suits, and the bulky outerwear. One break dancing model, doing hand stands and back flips in turnout gear, brought the loudest applause from the audience of several hundred.

Europeans have a more nonchalant attitude toward matters of sex, and throughout the exhibits nude mannequins, some flesh colored, others silver metallic and Terminator-like, wore only fall protection harnesses, long-sleeve synthetic gloves, or a hi-viz jacket top. Electronic synthesized dance music, and Michael Jackson beats, pumped from the PA systems of many booths, often made conversation difficult. Exhibit space often seemed quadruple the size of what you would see at a U.S. workplace safety and health show. Many had white bar stools and pedestal tables to seat up to 50 visitors. I counted more than 100 sales reps and guests packed into the Sperian booth.

Vendor signs often took on proportions of highway billboards. One featured three young women wearing ripped jeans and tank tops, and two young men in tee-shirts and jeans, straight out of a Gap or Urban Outfitters catalog. What were they selling? Safety shoes.

Crisis, what crisis?

For four days, 55,800 visitors — up from 55,200 in 2007 — packed the narrow aisles of nine exhibit halls.

Recession, what recession?

Pump in the loud, thick disco-like music beats, mix in thousands of animated sales conversations in any number of tongues, fuel the exchanges with dark beer or extremely strong German coffee, put all this against a backdrop of vendor signage right out of Times Square, and A+A 2009 had the throbbing, pulsating feel of a long and winding party snaking across acres and acres of exhibit space. A record-setting 1,541 exhibitors came from 62 nations.

Don’t be fooled by the party atmosphere, though. It does nothing to distract vendors from serious negotiations. So what if beer kegs are tapped and the drinking starts by ten a.m.? For all the thousands and thousands of safety and health officers visiting, there is little good old American “tire-kicking” going on, with attendees filling their bags with stress balls, pens, kewpie dolls and magnets.

Of the exhibitors, 538 were German and 238 were Chinese. Germans and Chinese are not big on small talk. Most likely you won’t be handed a business card from one of their sales reps until you’ve been sized up for your buying intentions. Visitors ready to do business are often whisked upstairs to the second floor of many booths, which is often laid out like a restaurant with round or square tables, usually minimalist white, and four seats to a table. Here you find mostly men hunched over or huddled together, empty beer bottles on the tables, engrossed in poker-faced deal-making.

“Generally German trade shows are conducted in a more formal matter than in the United States,” says a Messe Dusseldorf brochure on the country’s business customs and practices. The one downside for U.S. safety and health pros accustomed to business casual: “Khakis and golf shirts are generally too informal for shows in Europe.”

Straight talk

The directness of foreign sales reps at a booth can be another culture shock. “Take the direct approach and ask if your booth visitor makes the purchasing decisions,” advises the customs brochure. “In negotiating, Germans tend to start with something close to what they expect to receive in the end. A supplier who asks for much more than they agree to in the end lacks credibility in the eyes of the Germans.”

I got a taste of this visiting the China Pavilion, jam-packed with 10-foot by 10-foot stalls. In one stall, machinery noisily churned out terrycloth gloves. With no machine guarding that I could see. Xinghua Niu, president of Shandong Best Serve Safety Shoe, Ltd., invited me to sit down in his cramped stall. A week earlier he had exhibited at the National Safety Congress and Expo in Orlando, Fla. “U.S. financial crisis hurt very much,” he said through a young woman translator. “Attendance very low.” I asked about the Chinese domestic market for safety goods. It is slowly developing, he explained, as new safety laws come on the books. “People will learn and grow and do better,” he said. He asked if I was a supplier or buyer of safety shoes. I explained I was a magazine editor. Xinghua Niu smiled and replied, “Maybe you introduce me to major. U.S. brands to manufacture for them?”

“I’m no here,” said an Asian munching on sausage and sitting at a table at the booth for the 5th China International Occupational Safety and Health Exhibition. I moved on to the KCL hand protection exhibit featuring two glassed-encased displays of miniature railroad villages, incredibly detailed down to the moving construction cranes, tiny flashing blue welding light, a machine shop, a jet wing assembly operation, a twirling cement truck, and five miniature workers eating lunch at a picnic table, with what looked like the ubiquitous green beer bottles. The only glitch: the machines appeared unguarded and many of the workers were without hard hats and gloves.

A+A 2009, as with all A+A shows (which are held in Dusseldorf every other year), has an unmistakable consumer feel to it. You see it in the names of companies and brands: Rock Star shoes, Mad Dog safety boots and shoes, Job Man, Orbit International, Otter Premium sport footwear, Puma, Dickies, W.L. Gore, Goodyear, Myrtle Beach ball caps, James & Nicholson long and short sleeved dress shirts.

A consumer vibe

What Germans call “wire and tube” booths largely present consumer designs, signage and entertainment. Halls 3 to 5 and 9 to 10 were reserved for PPE, “corporate fashion” and “safe appliances.” Fire protection, enviro protection, and “measurement and control technology” were pooled in Hall 6. Special exhibits focused on the “Success Factor Office” (something is lost in translation here) and the “Innovation Park Hazardous Substances” (innovative hazardous substances?)

At one booth a bartender mixes vodka and OJ. Another has large photographs of white polar bears wearing insulated black work boots from Sweden. At the corner of one exhibit stands a mannequin wearing a black doo-rag, a double-breasted black-buttoned white top with stiff black and white striped cuffs and upturned collar, and black and white striped pajama bottoms, No shoes, gloves or goggles. One booth has 20 U-shaped black leather chairs for comfortable negotiations. Another is dwarfed by an actual red and black multi-ton trash truck, slightly tilted to one side on a bed of real rocks and gravel, with four-foot diameter tires. The theme? “Power to keep you fit.”

Just when you think you’ve seen it all, you turn a corner and there stands a statuesque blond ponytailed female DJ up on a blue stage-lit carpeted platform with speaker amps, turntables, a Mac laptop and a mixing board. Wearing tight black jeans, the black boots with four-inch heels you see women wearing everywhere in Dusseldorf, a tight gray tank top and head phones draped around her neck, the DJ smiles and sways to disco beats. Next to her stand two technicians working a concert-size mixing board, and next to them, what else, a keg with a tap.

Germany and China were the two leading countries for number of exhibitors. Asia was well-represented with 62 exhibitors from India, 42 from Pakistan, 35 from Taiwan, 25 from South Korea, and 20 from Hong Kong. Eleven of the 37 U.S. exhibitors were grouped under the North American Pavilion banner. The North American hostesses seemed prudish in comparison to their international counterparts, offering coffee and Coca-Cola from a countertop.