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Do Trade Shows Matter?

Issues & Questions that catch my attention

Theres a part of me that really likes our industrys trade shows, and I try to attend as many as I can. But I get this hollow feeling after a show, knowing I put in a lot of time and money for a small payoff. Whats your take?
–Name and address withheld

Lets break a trade show into its three core components. First, its a forum for manufacturers to hawk their wares. Second, its a collection of education seminars geared to bringing you up to snuff. And third (and perhaps most importantly) its a way for you to mingle with other industry folk in a relaxed (if you consider Las Vegas relaxed) environment.

You do realize that trade shows are run by trade show companies in the business of running trade shows? Which means that their primary goal isyou got itputting on shows, not entertaining you. And no matter how much they insist otherwise, trade show companies care first about selling booth space, and second about you and your needs.

The Booths. Its the manufacturers who are burdened with the educational aspect of the show. And, as you can imagine, they arent working in concert to enhance your learning experience. And why should they? Manufacturers are there to show their latest products and concepts, regardless of their efficacy. So youre shown competing technologies, competing claims and a smattering of voodoo science. Its your responsibility to ferret out the truth, and a show venue is designed specifically to hamper your efforts.

Is this the best way to learn about product? Well, given the state of todays industry, the answer is yes, because manufacturers typically have a tough time introducing their products throughout the year. They leave presenting to their sales people and reps, and there just isnt enough time for each salesperson to cart their wares to your offices for a cozy one-on-one…even if you were interested. Plus, you want to know how one product competes with another, so the show is a great place to scamper from one booth to the next and play 20 questions with the hapless sales guys.

So how often do you need to see new product? I reckon once a year per category is plenty. But you will find one show wont satisfy your needs, because some shows concentrate on video, others on control systems, others on lighting, and others on audio and its accoutrements. You should decide which categories are most important for your business, and pick the appropriate shows to attend.

The Courses. The educational tracts of most trade shows are loose collaborations of industry gurus and hired guns brought together to speak to the flash points in the industry. In my experience, the content of the seminarsalthough taught at a surprisingly high levelis not coordinated between speakers. So a student may hear a multiplicity of ideas, best practices and strategies, not knowing which is truly best. Often a student attends one class, hears the gospel, then attends another and hears the antithesis.

Compare this to any business school, which takes the time to vet its professors and curricula, and establish certain levels of truth, ensuring each student has at least a basic understanding of the business free of conflicting claims. Dont confuse trade show education with university education, even when certain shows fancy themselves universities.

I do, however, appreciate the certification tracts available through some shows. These are comprehensive, well-developed, and properly vetted for maximum learning. So, if youre looking for real education above and beyond the certification tracts, I fear trade shows are not your best choice. Instead, spend the bucks to hire a good consultant who can attend to your educational needs. Youll get a lot more for your efforts. E-mail me for a list of appropriate consultants.

The Camaraderie. This is where a trade show really shines. There is no other place where you can mingle with so many industry folks in a relatively non-confrontational setting. The amount of cross-pollinazation is worth the few days any trade show takes. And how often should you partake in this exchange? Well, thats up to you, and is probably the reason that drives you to attend as many trade shows as you do. And thats how you can make your decisions, and justify your expenditureshow much time and money you should spend in order to hang with your industry brethren.