Andy on Enterprise Software

The decline of the trade show

November 10, 2005

Douglas Adams once remarked that mathematics is universal, with its rules being consistent across the universe with the exception of the numbers on an Italian waiter’s billpad. To this he might have added the supposed attendee numbers at IT industry trade shows. Ever been to a show recently where the organizers claim 500 paying attendees, yet you can only count half that? Some trade show exhibitor sections in the last few years have become depressing affairs, with a thin trickle of conference attendees registering for prize draws, or in some cases just handing over their resumes at the booths. Vendors have been increasingly desperate to drum up attendance. At one trade show recently I was handed a brochure about a database appliance by a pretty girl. I asked her about the technology and she said “actually, I don’t know anything about this – I’m a model”. Is this what things have come to?

I had assumed that the malaise would have improved with the general modest recovery in the IT industry’s fortunes, but this barely seems to have happened. I am unaware of any proper data on the subject, but anecdotally the punters seems to be staying away in droves. Where have they gone?

For one thing they are attending webinars. Enabled by modern technology such as Webex, webinars are a more targeted way of reaching people interested in your message. They are attractive to vendors because they are relatively cheap (a trade show exhibit can cost USD 10-30k in fees, plus travel and people costs) and you get people attending who are genuinely interested. Instead of a trickle of bored looking geeks in search of free giveaways, with the odd five minute conversation thrown in, at a webinar people log in and listen to you for perhaps an hour. The number of contacts can compare well also. At a regular trade show you might get (say) 40-50 contacts, but perhaps only 5-10 of these will be of any real level of interest. By contrast, at a webinar you have people who have bothered to take an hour of their time to listen to you. At Kalido we have run webinars with over 300 attendees, so it can be seen that this compares very favorably to trade shows.

The other forum that people still attend are user groups e.g. there were 2,000 attendees at last week’s Business Objects user group. Customers still want to hear about product directions, meet other customers and get a bit of free education. While trade shows are not yet an endangered species, I wonder whether the rise of the webinar will gradually cast them in the role of the slide rule against the pocket calculator.