Thursday, June 20, 2013

Are Trade Shows Still Relevant?

This is a guest blog post written by Tom Groenfeldt

Yes, but trade shows have new purpose

In an age where people meet through online hangouts, where you can check out new technology online with videos, reviews, or endless photos, is the trade show still relevant?

Are trade shows still relevant?
Trade shows today are as much about learning and people
as they are about products. Photo by Tom Gorenfeldt.
I say yes, but in a different way. Trade shows have lost their original purpose – product introductions – and have only occasionally fully evolved into their new role – socializing.

As the Financial Times noted a couple of years ago, trade shows used to be where companies launched new products and explained existing products and services to prospects.

Now most of that gets done on the Web – if you want to compare smartphone software (even trade show apps) or security applications you can do it much faster on Web sites than wandering around a cavernous trade show venue like Chicago's McCormick Place trying to locate Booth C-28-5-B.

Trade Show Value:  Personal Contact

What trade shows do offer is an opportunity to learn – most have good presentations in tracks and often some excellent, or at least famous, keynote speakers.

They also offer an opportunity to fill in gaps created by the internet. How often have we emailed or tweeted at someone and finally had a chance to meet them for coffee or a drink at a show? Months and even years later the personal contact is still paying dividends as we can better understand the person on the other end of a phone call or email trail.

Trade Show Tips

  • Smart trade show operators create ample opportunities for people to meet. They schedule exhibit times around break times in the program. They understand booth people are human too and try to minimize the idle time they are stuck in empty exhibit halls so they aren’t completely worn out by the second day.
  • Coffee service is in the exhibit hall so attendees get exposed to the trade show booths that vendors have spent time and money creating. The show might have a checkoff sheet which offers prizes to anyone who gets it stamped by a certain number of exhibitors. Lunches sometimes work in exhibit halls, although it would help if caterers provided enough standup tables for people to set plates and drinks on.
  • The best lunches organize seating well so people aren’t stuck sitting alone at a table. Event staff or servers line up and funnel people to one table after another. Buffet lunches are a little more difficult, but sections can be roped off until existing tables are nearly filled. Well planned lunches make the experience better for attendees.

Re-thinking Trade Show Entertainment

Evening entertainment is another disaster-prone area at trade shows. I have been curious about tech trade shows with 90 percent male audiences that hire dance bands for entertainment – does someone expect all the attendees to come out of the closet and dance with each other? At the Hard Rock in Las Vegas a software company owner shouted over the band that he was there to do business. Pretty difficult when it’s too loud to talk.

The best evening entertainment was also in Las Vegas -- a quiet jazz piano, bars for wine and Scotch tasting, and Rat Pack imitators walking around getting their photos taken with attendees, helping to break the ice. A whole different level of awful was dinner out at a banking show with Fiserv, a vendor from Brookfield, Wis.

The four writers thought it was going to be social, but it turned out the sales guys insisted on telling us all about their products. If we started a general conversation one would ask when we were finished so he could continue.

Hot tip  –  know when to turn off the sales pitch and just relax.

Exhibitors make trade shows work through their financial support so they should push show organizers to be smart and create a good experience for both the people attending and for the staff they are sending along as well.

Tom Groenfeldt
Tom Groenfeldt is a longtime journalist and conference connoisseur who writes about financial technology at Forbes. He's a regular contributor to the Peninsula Pulse, an independent newspaper in Door County, Wisconsin.