Trade shows relevant, whatever economy does

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I admit it: I love trade shows. Since about 1984, I’ve been a regular spectator at mega technology shows like Comdex, NetWorld+Interop and Internet World.

Earlier this month, I spent a day wandering the floor at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. You couldn’t help but marvel at the enormous pavilions constructed by the likes of Sony, Panasonic and Microsoft, the seemingly ubiquitous flat-screen, digital TVs showing clips from the movie "The Matrix" and the espresso-fueled, manic energy of the booth personnel.

The logistics behind these shows—the movement of hundreds of exhibitors and tons of delicate computer equipment, not to mention tens of thousands of people—never ceases to amaze me. Within hours after the last complimentary key chain or logo pen has been grabbed at a booth, an army of workers break down the show floor. It’s an amazing, slightly sad sight, like watching the circus pack up and move on.

What was less apparent to me until recently was the lasting marketing value of trade shows. Despite the hype about virtual events and Webcasting, despite the unconvincing complaints of executives (and reporters) about having to travel to these things, companies of all sizes and in all industries rely on trade shows for crucial face-to-face contact with buyers and business partners.

Even dot-com executives, who once believed they could achieve visibility just by, well, being, nowadays will ask your opinion of the best shows to attend or sponsor.

There will be 483 computer trade shows this year alone, according to Tradeshow Week. For trade shows overall, net square feet increased 2.8%, the number of exhibiting companies was up 2.4% and attendance increased 5% in the first three quarters of last year, the industry magazine reports.

"One trend to look for in 2001 is that IT exhibitors are participating in events more strategically," said Michael Hughes, Tradeshow Week’s research services director. "They are looking beyond exhibiting at major trade shows to take advantage of sponsorships and speaking opportunities at executive conferences. Marketers not only want get their messages out to large groups at major trade shows, they covet being able to speak directly to 100 CFOs or CIOs in a conference setting."

Moreover, whereas the Internet has rattled other media, such as publishing and broadcast, the Internet and expositions are uniquely complementary, Hughes said. "The Internet can enhance nearly every task show managers undertake, as well as every aspect of the event, from streaming keynotes to developing e-commerce-enabled storefronts for exhibitors."

While there will be a welcome pruning of the overgrowth of "e-" shows (e-business, e-commerce, e-marketing, e-etc.) this year, my guess is that trade shows will emerge relatively unscathed, even if the general economy becomes anemic.

Cementing old relationships and forging new ones in the corner of an exhibit booth, followed perhaps by a cold beer at a hospitality suite, is a time-honored tradition that isn’t going away anytime soon.

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