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Executive Editor

Trade shows look to lure buyers, not big turnouts

Jun 23, 20037 mins

Smaller is better, or so the promoters of IT trade shows would have you believe.

Once anxious to brag that Comdex was the biggest industry show – it peaked at 200,000 attendees in 2000 – organizers of the sprawling fall tech extravaganza in Las Vegas now whistle a different tune: Relevance is the thing. About 125,000 attended last year and, by choice, the organizers are trimming that back to 80,000 this year.

“Over the last two decades shows were all about size: numbers of people, number of exhibitors, big booths, lots of tchotchkes, lots of noise, all about brand awareness and grabbing mindshare,” says Robert Priest-Heck, new CEO of the former Key3Media, which emerged from bankruptcy last week with a new name: Medialive International.

Things have changed, he says, and the people who pay for show floor space don’t want lots of people walking by; they want people who buy products. “Who cares about bodies?” Priest-Heck says. “People really want quality decision makers.”

As a result, Medialive is making an effort to keep out the bane of trade-show booth staffs: people who walk around gathering T-shirts, pens and other giveaways but don’t buy anything. Attendees will either be pre-qualified for Comdex by the nature of their work or pay to attend. And to maintain a corporate focus, the show is banning displays of purely consumer items like games and digital cameras.

Comdex isn’t the only technology show to suffer. Attendance at SuperComm, the major service provider trade show, dropped from 53,000 in 2000 to an estimated 24,000 this year. And the fall Atlanta version of NetWorld+Interop, which in 2001 opened on Sept. 11, suffered from poor attendance the following year so Key3Media discontinued the fall N+I, keeping just the spring Las Vegas N+I.

Medialive knows more than most about the harsh realities of trade shows. The bankruptcy was precipitated by hanging on too long to the theory that success meant high-attendance numbers and lots of exhibitors spending lots of money to rent floor space, Priest-Heck says.

Now Medialive and other trade show producers are instead trying to deliver people likely to spend money. To do that they are developing educational conferences concurrent with the trade shows and distributing marketing materials that spell out what benefits attendees can expect. Organizers hope that people interested in serious content also will be empowered to close deals with exhibitors at the shows.

“It’s essential to present an event that connects pre-qualified buyers and sellers in a meaningful way,” says Rob Scheschareg, vice president of sales, marketing and product development for IDG World Expo, a Network World corporate cousin. The firm produces the annual ComNet show in Washington, D.C., which once boasted 50,000 attendees, was down to 30,000 this year, and the number of exhibitors was down two-thirds from two years ago.

If the new tactics don’t work, the shows won’t win back the big vendors that once spent lavishly to exhibit their wares.

‘Shows are not a top priority’

“Trade shows are not a top priority,” says Mark Straton, senior vice president of global marketing for Siemens Enterprise Networking, ICN group. The company once spent $1.2 million on its N+I exhibit, and that didn’t include the cost of travel, meals and lodging for staffers or lobster dinners and tickets to “Cirque du Soleil” for 200 customers. “I would never see us doing that again,” he says.

Siemens didn’t exhibit at this year’s N+I, but deemed it worthwhile to send a team that wined and dined analysts and trade press. It is considering a return to exhibiting at the show next year. “We may do big shows but in a smaller way,” Straton says.

Meanwhile, Siemens says it has found better ways to reach buyers: small, single-theme shows, technical conferences and events called Siemens Salons, which are intimate dinners with select customers. The first salon was a dinner for 20 CEOs and their spouses held recently to discuss whether technology can humanize healthcare, says Janyce Harper, events manager for Siemens.

Similarly, Avaya holds Avaya Forums, gatherings of several hundred customers and prospects to show the company’s wares, talk about what it is developing and seek input, says Pete de Tagyos, Avaya’s global events vice president.

Although Avaya still attends big shows such as N+I, it tries to focus more on likely spenders.

“We invite good customers for a particular time and have tailored demonstrations for that client. We find that to be the bread and butter of it,” de Tagyos says. “The people with the plastic bags picking up novelties are not what we’re interested in.”

He also looks to the boutique shows aimed at particular technologies such as voice over IP or call centers. “You have an awful lot of smaller shows that are very focused and that line up with our priorities,” de Tagyos says.

As money got tight for exhibitors, the shows didn’t respond by easing up on the price they charged for floor space, de Tagyos says. Medialive seems to have learned a lesson from that. It used to charge a fixed price per square foot no matter how much space a vendor bought. Floor space at Comdex this fall is volume priced: the more space you buy, the less it costs per square foot. Prices range from $59.95 down to $49.95 per square foot, says Eric Faurot, vice president and general manager of Comdex.

The show also is being organized around seven technology themes featured in innovation centers on the show floor and is backed up by theme tracks in conference sessions. This is intended to help attendees navigate the show and pinpoint the technologies they are interested in.

While attendance at big shows has dropped, smaller ones have been hurt less, says Mike Colby, president of trade-show and conference promoter DCI.

“The smaller, more focused shows are not down as much or holding flat,” he says. Also, because they focus on the hottest technologies, they are expected to come and go. “We’re always looking for new ideas and new shows to launch,” he says.

Despite the troubles, enterprising promoters are launching and planning major new shows. Last week CeBit America, a slimmed down version of CeBit in Hannover,Germany, opened in New York with a strict focus on IT, network and business applications. Attendance was projected to be 20,000, one-tenth of CeBit Hannover’s attendance.

In November, another new show called Computer Digital Expo, or cdXpo, will take place in Las Vegas on the same dates that Comdex meets.

Jack Powers, cdXpo’s Chairman, hopes Comdex is mortally wounded because it has been tagged as the big show that is shrinking. “Once you get stuck with that, it’s impossible to shake it,” Powers says.

He says cdXpo, launched by Jupiter Events, will have top-shelf conference sessions but intends to brighten them up with tricks that range from game-show formats to voting for smartest and dumbest speakers on a panel.

“It’s less CNN and more Fox or MTV,” Powers says.

“We don’t have time for some white guy with a PowerPoint droning on at you for an hour with the same old crap,” he adds.

The IT trade show boom followed by a bust has mirrored the high-tech industry, and so will their recovery, Colby says.

“I don’t think Comdex and Interop will ever get back to where they were before. They could run those shows profitably at a lower level and as the economy upturns they will increase in size,” he says.