Venerable Vegas tech show will go on

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Venerable Vegas tech show will go onSmaller, revitalized Comdex remains relevant for a changed industry, declares CEO of MediaLiveRobert W. Priest-Heck might sound like a well-traveled executive, with a resume listing five employers in the last 12 years. In fact, he’s spent all of those years at various iterations of ZD Events, which has been sold four times since 1991, most recently to Thomas Weisel Partners L.L.C., an investment banking and strategic buyout firm. In June, Priest-Heck was promoted from COO to CEO-president of the trade show company, now called MediaLive International Inc. Formed from the assets of Key3Media Group Inc., which filed for bankruptcy protection last February, MediaLive produces Comdex, Networld+Interop, Seybold and JavaOne, as well as a number of smaller shows.

Priest-Heck has moved quickly to revitalize the company’s properties. He’s shrinking Comdex to 80,000 attendees and giving Seybold a completely new format. He said the company will shift its focus away from exhibitors and toward showgoers, and will work to move from single-event marketing to year-round, integrated campaigns only partly hinged on physical trade shows (already, some 25% of revenues come from outside physical shows). Priest-Heck talked recently with BtoB correspondent Michael Fitzgerald.

BtoB: Has the day of the big, horizontal trade show come and gone? Priest-Heck: No. People are getting hung up on what happened to Comdex and the technology industry. Every industry in the world has a significant overarching trade show. Horizontal events are the only place where you can do all four elements of marketing: build awareness, build consideration, offer support and do one-on-one sales. So I don’t think horizontal events are dead.

BtoB: Is this just a classic cycle? Are we in a downswing, and Comdex will come back up? Priest-Heck: No. There’s been a fundamental change in the industry we serve. I don’t think Comdex will ever be what it was, and I don’t think the industry needs it to be what it was. It served the industry well for its first two decades and gave the industry exactly what it needed—a big tent, a big platform, to try to grab mindshare from buyers.

The next two decades are going to be about how you have a measured experience, how you get involved with your customer, how you have accuracy vs. speed, how you have quality relationships … not about how you try to talk to as many people as you possibly can.

BtoB: How is the MediaLive approach to conferences going to be different? Priest-Heck: We’re putting all our energy back around buyers. Vendors largely pay the bills, so it’s easy to get focused on them. But the reason vendors do business with us is because we have an affinity with buyers. In the current cycle, buyers will get much more measured in their purchases and demand a return on investment. So how they interact and engage with companies is going to be very, very different.

We’re building out measurement tools. We do all sorts of surveys and research about perceptions on companies before and after an event. We do buyers’ studies, and we’re starting to track buyer behavior around the world. We do lead and sales conversion studies, and, of course, we do research on buyers as a whole. So we have good data on buyers.

BtoB: What does that mean for exhibitors, your customers? Priest-Heck: We sit down with customers and see how they’re actually going to use their events. We don’t just propose a big booth on the show floor. We talk about education; we talk about labs; we talk about pre- and post-campaigns.

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