There was a time when events – trade shows, conferences, etc. – were a staple of the marketer’s diet. For instance, I can remember the day (just about) when the annual Billing Systems show in London used to occupy acres and acres of either Earls Court or Olympia’s floorspace, both princely venues in scale if not opulence so that meant “big”. Back then, trade shows really were gatherings of the great and the good in any given industry. Deals were done and they mattered. The best shows were almost institutions. At one media event a few years ago (here’s the benefit of being a member of the press) entertainment at a private party for maybe 200 invited guests (including me) was provided by Elton John. Guess the marketing guys had a quid or two to spend back then (we should have such budgets now.)
Now? Seems to me like trade shows are dying a death, and I wonder why? When I look back at those in which I invested time and money last year it is hard to make a case that any really lived up to expectations, some (more than half) barely delivered at all, and those which yielded measured successes (measured in pipeline terms) did so in spite, rather than because, of the event itself. In the main, trade shows seem to now provide an opportunity, increasingly, for vendors to do little more than display their wares to other vendors, in the wan hope that a handful of prospects might stop by for the ride too. That might be an exaggeration – and there are certainly a few major events that transcend this description -- but overall you get the idea; the point is made. It would be charitable to describe most of the events I attended last year as even “struggling.”
Why? It strikes me as unlikely that time has moved on and, like the rotary-dial phone, trade shows have simply had their day. The reality is that marketing yields so many sources we can exploit to reach our target market and while some may at any one time be more fashionable than others, there will always be events and marketers will always support them as long they provide access to the prospect, even at a cost. So the problem is probably one of two things. One: prospects aren’t going in numbers (definitely true, on the evidence of 2009) and/or two: if they are going, not in a way that makes marketing at trade shows a cost effective method of reaching them.
With regard to the second point, the obvious observation is that as trade shows have struggled to deliver in recent years, the price of exhibiting at them hasn’t come down (if anything, as attendee registrations have dwindled, show organizers seem to have sought to recoup the lost income by passing it on to exhibitors in the form of raised, not correspondingly reduced, fees.) Pay more to reach fewer (often poorer quality) prospects is not a winning formula for the holder of the marketing budget, and never will be. But it goes further than that, I think. The static nature of many industries themselves – billing being a case in point; real change is slow, few products have genuinely evolved in an exciting way in recent years – is reflected in the events that serve them; from year-to-year the same speakers all too often deliver the same pitches on the same subject matter at event-after-event or, even worse, the same speakers deliver the same pitches on new subject matter; a state of affairs that really depresses. Proving the 80/20 rule is true, I am mischievously tempted to claim that taking all billing events into account, 80% of the presentations at events universally are given by 20% of the people who work in any given industry! Thus, even what’s passed off as latest news is often the emperor’s new clothes and radical thinking of the sort you’d hope to get at an industry forum is often far too absent, at least at all but the very best shows. This state of affairs does no one any good.
Well, just a couple of idle thoughts. But it occurs to me that if a great many trade shows want to become important again – to be relevant once more – and if the exhibition industry wants to return to its boom years, then event organizers –collectively -- have their work cut out. And they haven’t shown much appetite for graft or creativity, recently.