One of the more peculiar features of any industry is the “trade show”, which brings together the familiar mix of keynote addresses, smaller sessions (usually arrayed in tracks), an exhibit area and standard set of networking occasions (ranging from coffee breaks, through meals, and onto the ubiquitous reception in the exhibit hall and sometimes additional social events). Sustaining these gatherings will be fees collected from sponsors, exhibitors and attendees.
I call these gatherings peculiar because they are so standardized and so singularly ineffective. And despite being so ineffective, by almost any measure, they have persisted for many years and if anything become even more standardized. I guess the question that needs to be addressed at this point is why I consider these formulaic gatherings so ineffective. Once I have done this, I will have to move onto discussing what might be done to either improve or replace the standard industry trade show.
The most serious drawback that I see with the trade show format is its superficiality.
From the perspective of the companies sponsoring and exhibiting, the types of relationships that are made can best be described as superficial. The opportunities for these companies to meet with and seriously engage qualified prospects are usually very limited. The encounters that typically occur will frequently involve conference attendees who are new to the field and, while these people may sometimes prove easy targets for the unscrupulous, what they usually need is an education. Vendors soon discover that if their sales cycle involves educating the customer it will be a long and expensive sales cycle. The other possibility will be the conference attendees who are seasoned practitioners and these people either do not spend any time with the vendors or, if they do, they are focused on esoteric issues that are both difficult to parry and almost impossible to accommodate.
It is a measure of the difficulty that vendors have in finding prospects, and of the difficulty that companies needing assistance have in finding competent vendors, that these trade shows exist at all.
From the perspective of the conference attendee again the issue is one of superficiality. As a learning venue, these events typically rate very poorly. At best, they provide an opportunity for newcomers to a field to identify some of the key players and some of the prevailing ideas. As far as genuine learning goes, either in terms of developing an understanding of the field or refining relevant skills, not much progress will likely be made. Some socialization benefits emerge again in meeting key players and discussing some of the prevailing ideas. Given the expense associated with dispatching people to these events, it is surprising that organizations have not been more demanding with regards to the learning dividends that should come with such investments.
And from the perspective of the conference organizers, these types of gatherings come with sufficient expenses and risks, and especially so when destination venues are chosen, that the profit margins tend to be slim and for every good year there will be years when financial disaster looms. These strains tend to lead some event organizers to adopt practices that can help defray risks by wedding the program content increasingly to the funds provided by sponsors and exhibitors. If this cycle is left unchecked, before long any educational value associated with the event will be erased as the only presentations that will be provided will effectively be paid vendor advertisements. Why any attendee would elect to pay to sit through infomercials is utterly baffling even though this is the formula used by many of the better known technology conferences.
The picture painted so far is pretty bleak. But all hope is not lost as some events have been experimenting with innovations that, while still incomplete, point in what I feel is the right direction.
The innovations that have caught my eye basically fall into two baskets – those geared to providing more educational value to conference attendees and those aimed at providing participating vendors with more meaningful ways to interact with the attendees. In the very best cases, these two streams have been brought together.
On the educational front, some events have made specific attempts to integrate substantive training sessions into the conference program. Under this model, rather than just attending miscellaneous presentations the attendees also participate in a workshop or course that runs for one or two days. This merges with the second innovation type, engaging the vendors more concretely, when these training courses take the form of a hands-on introduction to using a particular software product. While this is completely commercial in its orientation, it is to my mind unabashedly so and the vendor facilitating the course is put upon to actually deliver some value to the attendee. This strikes me as a fair exchange and for the attendee, they return from the event with a genuinely improved knowledge of at least one of the commercial offerings available on the marketplace.
The educational side of these events in the future need not, I hasten to add, be restricted to commercial training. One area of great potential, I believe, is the integration of events with formal learning programs such as those facilitated by a university or college or perhaps by an industry association. These types of sessions can, at the very least, break the monotony of the standard unidirectional format used in many events (sometimes called Death by PowerPoint). The opportunity to conduct face-to-face sessions as an adjunct to distributed learning modes is something that can greatly enhance newer educational programs that have been trying to reach a broader audience using online learning alone. Integrating these face-to-face sessions into a larger industry event can help to make the associated travel expenses more justifiable for participants.
On the commercial front, I have been interested in experiments in vendor engagement such as demonstration sessions where all the exhibiting vendors at an event have a chance to briefly introduce themselves and their wares. Most entertainingly these take the form of Pecha Kutcha (a Japanese format for corporate “speed dating”) and demo jams. In both of these scenarios, the vendors must make their pitches in a very short period of time (typically 5 to 10 minutes) and sometimes following a set format (e.g., only 20 seconds per slide). When combined with audience participation (such as voting for best presentation) these sessions have been a highlight to an event rather than the dreaded “message from our sponsors”.
Another perspective that should be touched upon is that of the industry as a whole and here very often there are interests and issues revolving around standardization. This area also offers some of the best opportunities to integrate the educational and commercial mandates of an event as the training sessions can focus on introducing aspects of the standards and the vendor engagement sessions can be focused on working with particular interoperability scenarios that are germane to the training topics. This entails work for the participating vendors but it can make an event a meaningful milestone in the life of a key standard and it can allow vendors to compete, and attendees to evaluate them, on their performance and less on their swag (give-aways).
As a final point, the integration of an event with more substantive efforts around education and standardization can also be used to raise the level of quality in track sessions by providing a measure of focus (historically track session quality is a notoriously allusive goal for both conference organizers and attendees). One possibility is to introduce, into these tracks, current research being conducted by objective third parties (such as academics or participants in higher level education programs) into the impact of various standards or initiatives on the industry or on individual organizations. This could serve the larger purpose of helping the industry as a whole understand how well it is doing and where it is going.
It seems possible then for the trade show to re-invent itself and to find ways to offer substantially improved value to all its stakeholders – sponsors, exhibitors, presenters and attendees. The ways I have touched upon in this post are ones that I have observed in isolation at various events (and over the years I have experience chairing, sponsoring, underwriting, exhibiting, and attending events, as well as presenting at them, of course). In a general marketplace where value for money should be top of mind for everyone, I think that exploring and integrating these innovations offers real potential. And at the heart of these innovations lies one common theme - enhanced and enriched participation by all stakeholders and this can only lead to better conversations and better outcomes.