Targeted road shows upstage big events

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Huge, multiday industry trade shows packed with multimillion-dollar exhibit booths are falling by the wayside as many b-to-b marketers pursue smaller, targeted road shows to reach their core audiences.

The bankruptcy filing last week by Key3Media Group Inc., producer of the massive Comdex event, was the latest reminder that mega-shows may be marketing dinosaurs in this brutally tight economy.

Event producer Jupitermedia Corp. wasted no time jumping in to offer a rival show to Comdex. The day after Key3Media filed Chapter 11, Jupitermedia announced Computer Digital Expo Fall 2003 in Las Vegas. The new show, to be held at the 1.8 million-square-foot Mandalay Bay Convention Center, is slated for the same week in November that Comdex is scheduled to run.

The end of giant events?

However, many marketing companies and event producers say the days of giant shows may be numbered.

"Everybody is going back to the guerilla marketing days," said Harriet Donnelly, president of high-tech marketing consultancy Technovative Marketing Inc., Peapack, N.J. "Marketers are bringing their message home and making it more targeted." Her clients, which primarily are b-to-b technology companies, are attending far fewer trade shows than in the past as their marketing budgets get slashed, she said.

"It’s forcing agencies like mine to be more creative in looking at things that will benefit our customers," Donnelly said.

One of the hottest event strategies to emerge as large industry shows decline is the road show, in which marketers participate in specialized local events to carry their messages to a small audience of buyers, analysts or media professionals.

Road shows have been gaining momentum over the last few years as the technology market has declined. They can take the form of private events, such as those held by IBM Corp. and Oracle Corp. for customers and business partners, or media- and corporate-sponsored events designed to educate and build relationships with customers and prospects.

Road show vs. trade show

The key difference between a road show and a trade show is the business model. At a road show, revenues generally come from sponsors. Most road shows do not charge attendees or have a very slight fee. Registration fees for trade shows packed with conference tracks and multiple exhibit floors may range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars per attendee.

For corporate sponsors, the benefits of the road show model include a much more focused event, fewer vendors to compete with and a highly qualified audience, often with a very specific need, such as network storage solutions.

"It is critical to have face-to-face time with our customers and prospects," said John Carson, VP-customer marketing for Toshiba America Information Systems Inc. His company is a sponsor of the Microsoft Mobility Tour launched last month by Penton Media Inc.’s Windows &.NET Magazine. "The tour provides a forum not only for us to discuss our current platforms but the kind of solutions we have for the future."

The seven-city tour is designed to educate IT enterprise professionals about the mobility features of Microsoft Corp. software. Other corporate sponsors include Hewlett-Packard Co., Citrix Systems Inc., Acer America Corp. and Phoenix Technologies. Admission to the show is free.

"Advertisers are looking for smaller, boutique events with access to a much more targeted audience," said Kim Paulsen, publisher of Windows & .NET Magazine. "They’d rather spend a little more to get one targeted customer than have 20 people walk by [a trade show booth] who aren’t quality targets," she said. Paulsen did not disclose the sponsorship fees.

Penton will also launch a Network Storage Solutions Road Show in March. That event will be sponsored by Microsoft and HP.

Other event producers that have conducted road shows in the past are rolling out new ones, pointing to an increased demand for this type of event.

Imark Communications Inc., Portland, Ore., last week announced the NEXT Tech Tour, a 14-city series of events focused on security, storage and mobility/wireless solutions for small and midsize businesses. The tour will launch on April 23 in Dallas and Charlotte, N.C., followed by stops in Detroit, Houston, Indianapolis, Miami and other cities.

"We saw the market picking up, with demand for more road shows," said Belinda Adkisson, VP-marketing at Imark.

The NEXT Tech Tour will feature interactive kiosks rather than exhibitor booths, with a cost of $5,000 per vendor. The admission fee for attendees is $50, including lunch, with conference tracks priced from $150 to $350, Adkisson said. So far, Intel Corp. and Symantec Corp. have signed on as sponsors.

Imark’s First Contact event management division produces roughly 100 events each month for clients such as Cisco Systems Inc., Adobe Systems Inc. and Siebel Systems Inc.

Another organization that has made a business out of producing road shows is Emerging Interest L.L.C., a spinoff of what was once a nonprofit organization called the Rich Media Special Interest Group. Emerging Interest produces the Advertising Road Show, which brings presentations by best-of-breed technology vendors to an ad agency’s offices.

These road shows, which cost vendors $5,000 for five events, consist of between four and six presentations of 20 minutes apiece. Agencies that have participated in Advertising Road Shows include Digitas, Grey Interactive and OgilvyOne. There is no fee for the agencies.

The value of neutrality

Bill McCloskey, founder and CEO of Emerging Interest, says the strength of the Advertising Road Show is its third-party neutrality.

"It’s extremely difficult to keep up on all the digital technology vendors out there right now," said McCloskey. "Agencies can’t do it, and marketers can’t do it. It is all we do."

Emerging Interest reviews hundreds of vendors each year, assessing their financial stability, their management and whether their technology is proven and easy to deploy, he said. It also seeks customer references.

The Advertising Road Shows focus on one area of ad technology or cover a broad range. UPS recently heard presentations from five vendors of various technologies and has scheduled another show that will focus exclusively on e-mail vendors. Emerging Interest is currently preparing a series of wireless shows to be presented in New York, Boston and San Francisco.

Even trade associations are getting into the act. The Interactive Advertising Bureau and Microsoft’s MSN network last month launched the Interactive Marketing Best Practices Executive Briefing Tour, a 10-city road show designed to educate agencies and marketers about the effectiveness of interactive advertising.

Matthew Schwartz contributed to this story.

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