Maybe it’s Time to Rethink Tech Trade Shows

S. Schuchart

Summary Bullets:

• Trade shows are a tech staple, but compelling reasons to question them exist.

• The human interaction aspects of trade shows provide strong benefits.

The Convention. The Show. Some tech industry trade shows are so iconic that they are only known by their initials. Spring and fall trade shows are a staple, with great amounts of vendor and service provider time tied up with these conferences. Months and months of planning for attendees, speakers, sessions, food, and entertainment. Vendors have whole teams that do nothing but handle show details, booth hardware, transportation, and promotion. Somebody has to make sure the keynote intro is at an ear-splitting volume with a concert-like light show and features a walk-on song from Imagine Dragons for the CEO. A gradual shift over the last 20 years away from generalized third-party hosted shows with multiple vendors in one market have more or less yielded to vendor-specific shows, where other vendors show up, but exist in a careful détente. That has led to overall more shows each year. The big shift that had been going on was away from some cities where the costs for customers and visitors were pricing the very customers the trade shows are for out of attending.

Then COVID-19 hit. Now the spring tech show circuit is looking pretty grim with cancellations abounding. Even the storied service provider focused Mobile World Congress in Barcelona was cancelled, for very understandable reasons. With the next few months of conferences either cancelled or imperiled, perhaps it’s time to take a look at the concept of the ‘big tech conference’ overall. Because sometimes the convention ends and the thought occurs: Was travel really necessary for that information?

We have the technology to do intricate webinars with full video, presentations, sound, and recording playback, all in high definition. Q&A is easily handled. Similarly, technology demonstrations, particularly software demonstrations are also easily done. Customers’ entire teams can participate, including junior members who are often left to hold the fort while more senior members jet off to the conference. Companies can be reassured that if an emergency occurs while the webinar event is happening, that they have people on site and available to handle it, who can watch it recorded later. Travel expenses are lowered and employees will have more time at home, which is particularly important for those who have young children. Disruption for vendors is minimized as well. Instead of the frantic ugliness of trying to conform to executive calendars and disruptions of the sales team, you get planned time, with the ability to rehearse extensively and take a less stressful approach to communicating with your customers.

Then there are the green aspects. Less air travel both domestic and international, less rideshares (because who uses taxis anymore?), less equipment transportation, less mass food creation and the associated waste. The carbon footprint of a webinar is undeniably a fraction of live convention. Food, fuel, electricity…all saved.

The last unlamented loss with shifting away from conventions is what is collectively called “con-crud” where you get the flu, a cold, or some other illness either at the convention center or in the flying aluminum petri tubes that transport convention-goers to and from the host city. This point is particularly important in the light of COVID-19, which is affecting so many people around the world.

Yet, there is something about the personal nature of going to a convention that a webinar cannot replicate. Many times the most important part of the show isn’t the presentations, speakers, and sessions, it’s the informal conversations that are held in the hallways, at dinners, or just with the person sitting next to you. Evening events and dinners offer non-work opportunities to bond with co-workers or even vendor folks you may have spoken to or exchanged email with for years but have never met. The intimacy and extended information gained by simply taking in the convention should not be dismissed, it’s part of the value of the event.

Perhaps the way forward is less frequent conventions, or conventions that do more to ensure quality content rather than perfect marketing events would be a way to still get the human benefits of face to face contact. The COVID-19 outbreak is making vendors scramble to present their material in an alternate way. It’s time to reevaluate not only whether or not to have a convention, but if a convention is going to happen, perhaps it should be less frequent and most importantly, it should emphasize quality over marketing opportunities.

What do you think?

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