Everyone hates trade shows. Salesmen hate being cooped up on a stand for hours or days on end, giving out leaflets to people who are only interested in getting a freebie.
Many of the badge-wearers are only using the show as an excuse to get out the office. They whiz once round the hall, hoovering up leaflets to prove they went on this 'fact finding' mission, before disappearing off to the pub for the afternoon.
In the good old days there were only two or three shows that called for your attendance, and there was usually one show that the whole industry went to: Compec was the original monster computer industry extravaganza.
Then, in about 1989, it got killed off by the Which Computer Show. This too eventually petered out, because the Network Show became the de facto IT industry summit, as the whole world annually descended on Birmingham's NEC in June.
So unmissable was this show that people would sacrifice the one decent hot day we're guaranteed every summer, just to listen to a load of marketing managers yammering on about how the network was the computer.
Not any more though. We don't do big shows in this country any more. Anyone who loves trudging round endless halls for days on end has to go to Germany to satisfy their craving. CeBIT in Hannover continues to cater for every type of IT, for every type of industry.
But there are no such generalist shows in the UK. They are smaller and shorter instead. And since many specialist shows barely fill their venues, no one is going to need two days to wander around them.
Shows have become far more specialist. There seems to be an IT show now for every vertical market. Often there's more than one show. The Retail Technology view for business with Retail Solutions, is likely to cannibalise some of the audience for Business Continuity in Retail.
For any IT manager or finance director in retail, there are endless excuses to disappear from the office for at least half a day.
For IT salesmen, this new development must be a nightmare. Instead of one big grandstanding show, in which you could meet the entire industry over the course of three days, and 'network' yourself silly in the hotel bar every night, there are a multitude of small, low-key shows that have to be attended.
Well, there would be, but no IT vendor could afford to attend every show these days. That's another drawback to the way that the UK's exhibition market seems to have evolved. All the economies of scale have been neutralised.
Instead of paying for one big show, there are endless small shows that have to be paid for, and they don't come cheap. Surely this isn't what the IT industry wants, is it?
Au contraire, says Robin Edwardes, managing director of printing vendor Tally Genicom. "I much prefer it the way it is today. There are three vertical market trade shows we get a lot of value out of: The Property Computing Show, DCA [the Ministry of Defence technology show] and BETT [the education show].
"We got 200 leads out of BETT, so I'd say it's useful. We spend 15 grand on the show, and we've already taken £25,000 of orders. We still have 170 leads to follow up on," he says.
The reason why shows work today, according to Edwardes, is that they're about solutions, whereas they used to be about products.
"If you want to find out about products, all you have to do is look something up on the internet. It is a better source for that sort of information. You go to a show to talk to someone about how you get the products made into a solution for one of your business problems. You don't go there to talk about tin," Edwardes adds.
But isn't it a bit rich for a printing manufacturer to talk about not selling tin? If anyone is a box shifter, it's a print vendor, isn't it?
"We've changed the way we sell," Edwardes says. "We offer a service, and the hardware is given away free. When you sell services, people want to talk to you face to face. That's what a trade show is for, human communication. All the techie stuff is done on the internet."
Liz Wood, portfolio director for VNU Exhibitions (CRN is published by VNU Business Publications), agrees.
"All-encompassing IT events have almost certainly had their day. Technology firms no longer see the benefit of spending a large percentage of their marketing budget on large-scale events. What they want are more niche events that focus in on their target markets," she says.
Buy-in from visitors to these 'monster' events has also decreased, Wood claims. "In today's environment business professionals no longer have the time, budget or resources to justify large amounts of time spent out of the office visiting trade shows.
"They need to know that their time is justified, so the future lies in more focused, niche events that drill down into a particular market sector," she says.
Organisers also need to become specialists in their field to compete effectively and offer both exhibitor and visitor a more valuable show experience.
However, there are problems with all of these different shows. As Bruce Townsend, marketing manager at e-commerce software supplier Actinic, testifies.
"At the height of the dot-com boom there was a plethora of specialist e-business exhibitions on the circuit, and Actinic supported many of these as they all attracted a good number of visitors," says Townsend.
"But many of them died out in the crash that followed. Then, as the web became part of the mainstream of business, even the survivors were subsumed into other, more broadly-based shows."
Even with the consolidation that has taken place, Actinic has found that IT exhibitions are no longer as effective at pulling in high volumes of leads. They simply do not attract the number of visitors that they used to.
"One reason, in our experience, is that many people now do their initial research on the internet, then contact potential suppliers directly," says Townsend, confirming the point made by Edwardes.
Where exhibitions do justify their cost, and probably always will, is for providers of services carrying a relatively high-ticket sale, Townsend argues. Many of their potential customers really do want to meet such suppliers face to face and have in-depth conversations.
The problem companies face now is in choosing the right exhibition, Wood says. The demise of these one-size-fits-all flag-waving events of the past has indeed led to a more fragmented exhibition landscape.
Whereas in the past the IT event calendar was dominated by 'monster' annual events, there are now possibly more events, smaller but more specialist in their field.
The trick is to find an exhibitor that can prove it has a detailed understanding of current trends, buying patterns and market dynamics.
That is easier said than done, and it's not very easy to say anyway. Every company claims its philosophy is "one of proactive and continuous development in line with the needs of both end user, channel and vendor communities", to quote one organiser.
But how do they prove "their ability to provide products that reflect those needs is paramount to its success, and it is constantly working to ensure that this continues"?
Some shows seem to have all this and still fail. Take the Telecommunications Managers Association (TMA) show, that used to be held in Brighton in October. This was a demand-led show, since it grew out of the annual gathering of telecoms managers, who met up every year for 20 years since 1983.
The decision to let vendors exhibit their wares came as an afterthought. Nobody could claim this was a show that nobody wanted. What went wrong?
It was a victim of its own success, claims one insider, who does not wish to be named.
"It got to a certain size, which was only sustainable if certain vendors were there. If they pulled out, the whole thing wasn't economic. The problem was that if some vendors weren't exhibiting, many of their rivals would take that to mean it wasn't worth their while either. They would all pull out. It was like a house of cards," says the source.
There is an awful lot of 'me-tooism' among IT marketing managers. They are not known as the electronic herd for nothing. This is unfortunate, because success in today's fractured market, depends on being capable of having independent thought and creativity.
Some marketing managers are rising to the challenge. As marketing manager at Activa, one of the smaller telecoms vendors, Maria Boxley probably doesn't have the budget to find out what Cisco is doing and then copy it. Therefore Boxley has to be careful about where the marketing money, and efforts, are directed.
"Marketing budgets have shrunk over the years, and companies are looking for higher return on investment on any marketing penny spent. As a result the marketing focus has shifted from big trade shows to running more targeted lead generation activities," Boxley says.
There is another reason why exhibitors are struggling. "Potential buyers don't tend to have the luxury of spending long periods of time out of the office browsing at leisure through massive exhibition centres," Boxley adds.
"Our research has shown they would rather attend smaller events specifically aimed at their industry. That's why trade shows and conferences now tend to be highly focused on a particular market segment and solution offering.
"Nobody sells products any more: that's bad marketing karma. You need to provide a solution to a specific problem, which makes the working life of the buyer easier."
Smaller venues are not without their problems, though. The key to any event, such as seminars, conferences and exhibitions, relies on matching as accurately as possible the solutions on offer with the needs of the target audience.
From an exhibitor's point of view, the success of the event also depends on pre- and post event activities, such as PR, personalised invitation mailers and prompt lead follow-up.
"It's amazing how many companies these days still book their place at an exhibition, do not tell anyone they'll be there and rely entirely on the organisers to promote their presence," Boxley says. "Then they turn up on the day and whinge that they did not get enough leads."
Boxley is not a big fan of conferences with an attached exhibition, such as TMA. But surely this is a good compromise now that there aren't any big trade shows? It could be, but you have to be careful how you work it, Boxley warns.
"When the main focus is the conference itself and the delegates have paid hefty fees to attend, that leads to problems. It means the only time anyone has to make contact with the delegates is during the 10-minute coffee breaks or the 30-minute lunch break," she says.
What happens is that hapless conference attendees take on a haunted look. It is bad enough that they have to suffer a few hours of 'death by PowerPoint'. Once they emerge from this trial, they get cornered by exhibitors trying to sell them their widgets.
"You see them trying to hide behind their coffee cups," says Boxley. "I feel guilty preying on them."
The one area in which money is being spent is the public sector, and feedback from vendors suggests that BETT, is doing particularly well at the moment.
Martin Large, managing director of audiovisual (AV) vendor Steljes, says this is one exhibition that is guaranteed to pay off in the near future.
"The quality of the stands and the amount that firms were investing in the BETT show was clear. This investment was balanced out by a very busy show. BETT was packed on each of the days and there were more attendees than ever before," says Large.
The best sign is that there has been a shift in emphasis, and Saturday is no longer the busiest day of BETT. This reflects the increasing importance of AV and IT, Large suggests. "Education establishments are releasing staff to attend during the week and there's a bigger trade presence," he says.
If the market took off, would anyone relish a return to the old days of giant shows? No way, Boxley says. Companies still exhibit at Cebit because they have always done so, not because there is a real return on investment in doing it.
"From an exhibitor's point of view it is a really painful experience: long hours on your feet, entertaining passers-by that will never in a million years become even remote prospects. The weekend part is the worse, with entire families storming through for giveaways," she says.
The days of using exhibitions as simply a flag-waving exercise are long gone. It is imperative that exhibitions deliver a good return on investment. The organiser's responsibility is to deliver the right visitors to the event but the exhibitor should also involve themselves in this process.
Yes, it's important that companies give their stand design some serious consideration and it should reflect what they are hoping to achieve. But preparing the ground before an exhibition will pay big dividends. Organisers need to offer more added value at an event so that visitors' time spent out of the office at events is justified.
That means educational programme, free informed market intelligence, hands-on product demonstrations, prior contact and on-site meeting service with exhibitors.
Actinic (0845) 129 4800
Activa Solutions (01732) 784 320
VNU Exhibitions (020) 7316 9000
Steljes (020) 8213 2321
TallyGenicom (0870) 872 2888
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