The (big) business of ed tech

Trade shows in ed tech are no different than trade shows the rest of the technology sector. They're big, expensive, and utterly necessary.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

I got my first taste of ISTE last night as I set up my company's booth, getting ready for the opening of the formal tradeshow portion of one of education's biggest technology conferences. After all these years thinking about educational technology, it's kind of ironic that my first opportunity to participate in this conference finally came when I left public education. However, it has given me a unique perspective on the truly big business of selling technology to schools and educators.

I won't share exact numbers with you, but what I will say is that my company has spent a good chunk of change on ISTE. Enough for a come-to-Jesus talk with the boss about how I'm burning through my marketing budget. And yet, as I wandered through the sprawling exhibit hall of the Pennsylvania Convention Center last night where the likes of Dell, Intel, Follett, and HP were making last-minute preparations to their areas and realized that I could probably find most of my ISTE budget in the couch cushions in their lounges.

What's crazy is thinking about what I spent for a small presence at ISTE and then multiplying that by a couple thousand vendors, and then realizing that my spending was near the bottom of the heap. I wasn't flying out anywhere from 2 to 15 staff (I drove and came by myself, which, by the way, was not smart, since manning the booth left little time for any of the important networking and business development opportunities that are more abundant than free tote bags at these conferences; it also left no time for bathroom breaks), I didn't have hot air balloons or signs hanging from the ceiling, and I don't have shipping crates filled with equipment. Just me and a demo setup and some tchotchkes. And some M&Ms with the company colors and our website on them.

This all boils down to a couple of facts:

  • A lot of money has been spent on ISTE.
  • A fair portion of that money may not be recovered in any sort of near-term revenue. This is all about building brand and creating a presence that absolutely must be maintained, regardless of the cost.
  • Unless they're Apple, most companies chuckle at the idea of not being present at ISTE. And even Apple is a corporate sponsor. Really, what are we going to do? Not be at ISTE?
  • A lot of money has been spent on ISTE (and yes, I meant to repeat that).

This isn't all bad. The fact that tech companies big and small (both inside and outside of the education vertical) are willing to invest so much on becoming important educational brands means that there is a lot of room for growth in educational technology and an incredible level of innovation centered around learning. That's never a bad thing.

On the other hand, for the small companies doing some of the most innovative thinking in education, the barriers to entry are extremely high. It's extremely difficult to compete with the deep pockets of our more established counterparts. As I walk through the exhibit halls, I can't help but feel that there is something of an ed tech arms race going on. Who can be the biggest? The flashiest? The most awesome? And I know that I'm going to be the first one upping the ante at the upcoming conferences. I've already signed publicity deals for FETC, TCEA, and EDUCAUSE. My custom backboards are on order. My shipping crates are, too, so that bigger and better displays and more interactive hardware can make its way to various conferences.

I won't be a Dell or an Adobe. But I need to be more than the little booth in the corner because my competitors certainly are.

Any way it goes, the competition is fierce for the eyes and ears of the tech press and educational decision makers. Plenty of that competition is focused on creating great new products. Plenty more, though, is focused on the art of the trade show.

Editorial standards