I was sitting in the restaurant of a Las Vegas hotel during the recent Call Center Vegas show having breakfast with one of the top vendors in the CRM (customer relationship management) space. "You know, this bad economy is actually good for businesses," offered the executive. "During these downturns, companies are forced to root out and eliminate bad business processes, subpar products, and underperforming employees. When the economy is soaring, these things get glossed over or slip through the cracks."
While a slow economy may, in fact, strengthen companies, it is not the sole culprit for the beating trade shows have taken in the past couple of years. In fact, it seems to be a conspiracy among the economy, technology, and vendor redirections. Assuming the economy will hit stride at some point, trade show management still has to contend with changing technology trends and vendor marketing. And, this will not be easy for the large shows that used to drive large attendance and revenue.
Some Shows Will Not Return
No one denies that travel budgets have been slashed to the detriment of the trade show industry. Companies that used to send five members of a project team to a show now send only the project manager. If no projects are in the hopper, then a company will take a year off from the trade show circuit. Fewer attendees has led to a fairly common breakdown of activities on the last day of the show - the morning is spent networking among exhibiting vendors, and the afternoon is spent organizing the booth for tear down. Finding exhibitors talking to end user attendees in the last two hours of the show has become as rare as an effective spam-blocking technique.
So, where are we? Well, COMDEX producer Key3Media has filed for bankruptcy. Advanstar, producer of the newly christened International Supply Chain Week 2003 (formerly Frontline Expo, formerly ScanTech), finds itself searching for a new identity and promoting a show where two of its flagship exhibitors - Symbol and Zebra - have decided to sit on the sidelines this year. And, a host of other mid-level shows are crossing their collective fingers hoping end user and exhibitor attendance will magically increase. The sad truth, of course, is some shows - just like bad business processes and underperforming employees - will never return.
Make Trade Shows More Relevant
Are trade shows destined to reside in the IT museum right next to the 8086 processor? I don't think so. Management just needs to find ways to make them more relevant. For example, include education and certification tracks as part of the trade show package. In addition to drawing a more select group of end users, companies are more willing to spring for training seminar expenses than what might be deemed a trade show junket.
The Internet, which is always cited as a factor in declining trade show attendance, needs to be incorporated into the trade show experience and promotion. Let exhibitors swap e-mails with end users on the pre-show attending list to better qualify them or set appointments. Design trade show Web sites to educate attendees on the exhibitors and specific types of solutions on display. Offer online solution centers on the show floor to make the end user experience less frustrating and more fulfilling.
In many ways, trade shows are not much different than some of the technology solutions our end users discuss with us each month. Some are deemed necessary, but the majority fall into the margins. The technologies that move from ancillary to pivotal are those that offer a real return. So the question to trade show management is, "What is the real return you offer to exhibitors and attendees?"