Trade shows in the oughts

I've spent the last week in San Francisco meeting with old and new friends and taking in MacWorld San Francisco 2003. Here are some thoughts the way trade shows seem to be going. I'll put up another posting specifically about this show.

After attending a large number of conferences and trade shows in 2002, I was not as surprised as many to see the relatively low turn-out for small companies at this show.

Partially because of the economy, partially because of the travel conditions caused by 9-11, partially because of the web (we'll get to that in a minute), and partially because of the ongoing tradeshow contraction necessitated by the tradeshow explosion in the late 1990's, there are fewer people going to each individual trade show, and hence fewer exhibitors are interested in attending a lot of shows.

Many of you may be aware of the rather public row between Apple and IDG over MacWorld Boston and whether Apple will be attending it or not. This, I believe, is a sign of things to come in any industry that supports its own trade shows. With people cutting down on travel for financial and other reasons, they just aren't attending multiple shows. This makes it somewhat harder to justify all of the cost and hassle of mounting a booth at these shows (especially in the case of an anchor booth like Apple's at MacWorld).

In San Francisco, a lot of the folks manning the Apple booth are local Apple employees who are in for the day or a couple of days. For most of these folks, MWSF is an extended (or contracted) commute, not an overnight stay in the city with the requisite airplane travel. That cuts down substantially on the costs of having a booth, and also increases the number of Apple employees that get to directly interact with attendees.

For Apple, an East Coast show (whether Boston or NYC) is going to be a more difficult and expensive operation.

Why are you citing the web as a cause?

Good question. My theory is that many kinds of companies are finding it unnecessary to show up at trade shows that used to be the mainstay of the business. In particular, the small, innovative companies that used trade shows to get word-of-mouth publicity in the past now do this kind of guerilla marketing on the web instead of in the trade show halls.

As I think back to the days when InterCon was in the Mac software business, we would never miss MacWorld or InterOp. Each of these shows were key to us meeting our customers and hob-nobbing with the networking folks with whom we needed to communicate in order to set and implement standards.

But, this was mostly before the web was available. These days, if I were a small company selling software in a niche market, I would be using as much web-based word of mouth as possible. You can get on a lot of sites and searches for the 25-35K that it used to cost us to have a booth at a show. Even in the earlier days, $10K was a pretty conservative approach for a large show.

Another element that has changed the way that people in the software business do their business is the availability of inexpensive, high-bandwidth connections. Even if you don't have one at work, if you work in any kind of technology business (the ones that most often purchase software), you probably have access to high-speed internet at home. This makes it much easier for prospective clients to download information and brochures, browse price lists, see support information, and try out versions of your software.

These days, if you are a software company, trade shows are more about maintaining relationships with your existing customers than about getting new customers. Hence, my theory that the web is reducing the number of small, innovative software booths that show up at trade shows.

Hardware is a bit of a different problem. You can put up pictures on a web site, but in the end, a lot of people like to touch hardware before they buy it. I'm generally one of those. There were some interesting small booths on the hardware front this year (many cases, some antennas, furniture, networking gear, lots of cool printers, plenty of music and video attachments, hard drives and enclosures galore, and MP3 players).

In conclusion, I think we're going to see a continued contraction of trade shows and a consolidation over the next couple of years. The movement towards smaller shows or larger ones is something I'm not yet willing to predict. Smaller ones tend to be less expensive, but bigger ones (like CES) make it easy to get lost in the crowd, hence continuing the trend towards maintaining existing relationships instead of fostering new ones.