Death of the Trade Show?

While visiting the Networld+Interop trade show in Atlanta last week, I stopped by a small press event, a gathering the likes of which I'm seeing more often these days. A mere 20 companies with specialized networking products had come together to show their wares in a smaller, less noisy venue.

While visiting the Networld+Interop trade show in Atlanta last week, I stopped by a small press event, a gathering the likes of which I'm seeing more often these days. A mere 20 companies with specialized networking products had come together to show their wares in a smaller, less noisy venue. The event was put on by public relations executive John Davis and was modeled after a similar type of gathering called Silicon Northwest that debuted more than a decade ago at Fall Comdex in Las Vegas.

Silicon Northwest was the idea of PR executive Ginger Brewer, who was trying to find a way to get attention for smaller Pacific Northwest companies. Davis told me that as far as he knows, Brewer was the first to hold this kind of press event. Within a few years, there were a half dozen copycats, but most were like the events staged by Alexander Communications (now Ogilvy/Alexander), which were showcases for the PR agency's own clients.

The Davis event and a similar event at PC Expo coordinated by writer Jon Pepper are effective because they stick to a single topic. These types of thematic events will become commonplace as companies look to get media attention at massive trade shows. That's no easy task.

The time I spend at a press conference would be better spent at one of these thematic mini-trade shows, where I can see the wares of 20 companies quickly. At the Davis event, I found two or three companies making competitive products and was able to ask each of the three how its product was better than those of the other two. The vendors knew that I could walk 20 yards to confirm any assertions, so they couldn't fling as much PR nonsense as they could have at a press conference. That's a huge benefit to the media.

Appearing at these little events isn't a cheap proposition for the vendors. The Davis event costs $4,500 per participating company, and with 20 participants, Davis can make good money. It's still a lot cheaper than a booth at the show itself, although some trade shows offer booths that cost as little as $2,500. This week's Diskcon show in San Jose, California, rents booths for that price. Diskcon makes money because it has 900 exhibitors. But few members of the press attend such specialized shows . The most interesting product at the John Davis event was this DSL modem designed for hotels and sold by STSN. It's unusual because you can plug your laptop into it via an Ethernet connection and not have to change your IP address. The Marriott chain will be the first to deploy it, and you can expect to pay about $9 per day to use it. The gadget includes a bunch of printed directions right on the modem.

Of course, getting some media attention isn't the only reason companies go to trade shows. The real reason is to meet clients and vendors. In many instances, meetings take place away from the show, in hotel suites. Trade show promoters hate that, of course, but at vast shows like Comdex, it's a more comfortable way to do business.

Yes, we still need big trade shows. Without them, the ancillary events I'm describing wouldn't be possible. But smart money is always looking for an angle, something different. I suspect that the trade shows themselves will try and horn in on this off-site mini-trade show model. So far, they've allowed shows within shows, but nothing like the John Davis event.

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