The Death of the Trade Show

Don’t get me wrong. There will always be trade shows. People will always find an excuse to fly to San Francisco to dine on expense accounts and stroll along a warehouse floor. Pitchmen will yearn to make silly tradeshow premiums, sponsor contests and hire vacuous-yet-beautiful booth personnel. It’s just that these stopped being useful some years ago.

Early on, these events used to be critical. All the new stuff (and everything was new) came out at a trade show. The pioneers who’d actually done interactive things would present cases, papers and studies.

Tradeshows developed that were organized around “the deal,” providing little private booths for exhibitors to clinch venture funding or sell the major account. Others were organized around an exclusive set of industry experts, conducting invitation-only events where intimacy could be created between buyers and sellers.

Surprisingly, the interactive industry actually turned out to be positively nerdy in its level of interest in obscure, academic principles. Perhaps that was because back then everything came out of research budgets. There weren’t the big-spending clients looking for direct returns that we have today.



The Slow Demise

But then, tedium set in. The presentations turned into sales pitches, as conference sponsors won more of the speaking slots. The start of the Internet boom brought great numbers of new initiates to conferences, seeking very basic information that diluted the general content. To go to an industry conference was to sit through hour upon hour of remedial instruction.

Even the after-event parties took a turn for the worse. I can remember back in 1994 shooting the interactive breeze after conferences with interesting people like Matt Groening and the late Douglas Adams. They weren’t entertainment; they were participants. While we talked, funky naked performance art people would entertain us in the hottest of San Francisco’s clubs.

Nowadays, a sponsored party involves moving over to the next banquet room in a hotel, where they ply you with wine and cheese while the VP of Communications of the sponsor company regales you with product information.

Some of you out there are probably thinking, “Hey, wait a minute, wasn’t he one of those dumb VPs of Communications…” and, yes, I was about as guilty as any of them. But, at least I’m not deluding myself into thinking that I was providing any great value.

Interactive Lacks Central Control

A lot of other media have very organized structures, where certain conferences become part of the very process. The online crowd, thankfully, never had this. Sure, we complain about the lack of standards and all, but the only worse thing than having no standards is having a trade group mandate one to you.

Thank goodness we’re not in the syndicated television business. It used to be that their annual NATPE conference was the be-all and end-all of the year. The whole industry was geared around those very few days of hard selling under the auspices of that one organization. Now that some studios have broken than monopoly, there might be hope for some innovation.

But, for the present, they have group of some of the largest and most powerful studios, like Warner Brothers, putting the squeeze on the central NATPE organization, demanding concessions on the process and the costs of meeting.

The Conference as Control Device

Conferences are a lot like industry standards. When there are a lot of them running around, there’s usually one that suits any particular firm. As soon as they get consolidated into a few, they tend to suit only the most powerful participants.

As with standards, broadly attended conferences suit only the greatest common denominator. The companies that benefit from that common denominator being served are the ones with the largest client bases.

That’s great for the commerce of these companies, but it makes for some deadly-dull tradeshow content. I think the exception is the conference geared around training. Those conferences fill a very specific need, if not a desire for cutting-edge sizzle.

Replacing Tradeshows

Instead of meeting people at conferences, I’ve been doing a lot more direct personal communications with people. As the hassles and hurdles of tradeshow attendance exceeded the likelihood of meeting the right people, many buyers have been turning to two alternatives.

Some are just meeting with people personally, sometimes starting up highly-involved email discussions. Others have been participating actively in industry list servers and other, less formal, online trade groups with highly-specific common interests. I suppose Online Spin could even be stretched to fit into this description.

It would take some doing to bring me back to the trade show circuit as a consumer. I find that the smaller the group, the more comfortable speakers are in saying interesting things. Large audiences breed marketing babble.

I’m not anticipating that organizers will bring back intellectual discussions or, heaven forbid, naked performance artists, but I don’t think I’m asking too much when requesting that they bring in speakers who provide something new.

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