Associations are big business in this town. That's something I learned in my first job after college: toiling in the publications department of the Greater Washington Society of Association Executives, an association of people who run associations.

And Washington's associations are big business for other towns, too.

Last Thursday at the Washington Convention Center, GWSAE hosted its annual exhibition for the people who plan association conventions. Eager to get a piece of the pie were some 850 companies: convention and visitors bureaus, hotels, airlines, the people who make the souvenir tote bags emblazoned with "American Society of Cataract & Refractive Surgery" or "National Association of State Aviation Officials."

Strolling the exhibit floor was like taking a bizarrely disjointed cross-country trip. The Minneapolis booth was right next to the Jacksonville, Fla., booth. It didn't seem a fair fight. Jacksonville's open-air shopping street known as the Landing or Minneapolis's sealed-against-theelements Skyway?

"We don't really compete with Jacksonville," said Minneapolis's Lorri Bell. "It's a beach, and we're not. It's more of a resort environment, and we're more . . . professional."

I don't think that slight pause was a putdown. Still, I tried to get some competitive friction going between the two cities. What famous people are from Minneapolis?

"Garrison Keillor," said Lorri.

Jacksonville?

"Lynyrd Skynyrd," said Jacksonville's Rob Hampton.

I told Lorri that Jacksonville had Lynyrd Skynyrd.

"We've got Prince," she said.

I walked on, leaving them to their one- upmanship.

I decided to get hard-hitting at the booth for Las Vegas's Station Casino. Should slot machines be legalized in Maryland? They said yes, then invited me to play their computerized one-armed bandit. I lost all my imaginary money.

"Oh, well, just like Vegas," said Kathy Seager. (Hey, what happens in the Vegas booth stays in the Vegas booth.)

Many of the cities displayed a totemic object that symbolized a famous native or a unique quality. Louisville had a boxing glove signed by Muhammad Ali. Cleveland had a seven-foot-tall guitar sculpture, a nod to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Hollywood, Fla., Hard Rock Hotel & Casino had a regulation-size black guitar.

"Cleveland's guitar is bigger than yours," I pointed out to the Hard Rock's Michele Buggica.

"Are they giving away a signed guitar?" she countered. "I'm giving away two, one signed by Kenny Rogers and one signed by Huey Lewis and the News."

"Huey Lewis and the News?" I asked, smelling a scoop. No, Michele clarified, just Huey Lewis.

Austin had a guitar case, but there wasn't a guitar in it. "It's just a prop," said Tracy Purcell of Austin's Driskill Hotel.

Isn't that a bit of a disappointment, I said, given that your booth touts Austin as the "Live Music Capital of the World," not the "Empty Guitar Case Capital of the World"?

"We said we can either bring a live musician up from Texas or we can bring our beer," said Tracy, tipping her head toward a bartender who was drawing cups of free Shiner Bock. Ooh, tough call.

The Loews Hotels booth looked like a scene from the fall of Rome. No orgies that I could see, but all Loews employees wore bathrobes and sandals, and exhibit-goers could get a free back massage.

The guys in the Bermuda booth had on Bermuda shorts. Paul Emmons in the Nova Scotia booth wore a kilt. Why?

"Nova Scotia means New Scotland," he pointed out. (No offense, Paul, but thank goodness it doesn't mean "New Thong.")

Wait, what's this? The booth for Bloomington, Minn. -- "The Third Twin City" -- features a photo of the Mall of America, as does the booth for St. Paul, presumably the first or second Twin City.

"The Mall of America is really in Bloomington," said Sally Slater.

So, how's the association convention business in Bloomington? "I think we have a real good opportunity to be a city where people know where it is, that it's not Bloomington, Indiana, or Bloomington, Illinois."

The District's large booth was entirely cherry-blossom pink: pink carpet, pink flowers, pink ice cream in a cooler, pink nail polish on the toes of Dawn Poker. I asked Dawn why Washington was here at all, given that the attendees were probably familiar with the District in a way they weren't with, say, any of the Bloomingtons.

"Wouldn't it be a shame if we weren't here and all these other cities were trying to take business from our back yard?"

Houston's Hotel Derek had an entire guest room in its booth: couch, lamp, bed. When the lady there asked me if I wanted to try the bed, I hurried away.

Look, there's the booth of those musical jokers at the Capitol Steps. Say something funny, Bill Hurd. "We've performed for five presidents, six if you count Hillary."

Bada-bing!

Many of the attendees were groaning under the weight of the accumulated tchotchkes the exhibitors were handing out: pens, key chains, pocket mirrors, chocolates, lip balm, shoe polish . . .

What's hot in the stuff biz? Anything on a carabiner, one of those clip gizmos. "You can do a watch on a carabiner," said David Nay of Bagmasters Factory Direct. "You can do a pen on a carabiner. You can do a flashlight on a carabiner."

You heard it here first: carabiners.

I'm at kellyj@washpost.com. And 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.