April 20, 2009

IT Trade Show Attendance Down Sharply. Is Quality Improved?

During the last recession, especially in 2002 and 2003, our experience showed that attendance at technology trade shows was very poor, to say the least. If vendors weren't canceling their sponsorships outright, or dramatically reducing booth space, the scarcity of end-users saw marketers desperate to hit target lead counts, even if it meant randomly scanning those who just wanted the give-away of the day. But in this go around, having attended a fair number of events so far this year, while I see attendance is once again down significantly, the quality of those end users who remain might actually be better overall.

As mentioned yesterday, I am spending the week at the NAB conference here in Las Vegas. This show, expected to draw tens of thousands of attendees, if not a hundred thousand, as once estimated, clearly doesn't have as many exhibitors as in previous years. The hallways are less jam-packed, and wait times for services like taxis, shuttles and the monorail are greatly lessened, compared to other times I've attended.

Any trade show veteran knows that the first and second days of a show typically drive the lion's share of activity. Often, a 3-5 day show can be like molasses as all the exhibitors pace upon their well-carpeted square booths, and watch the clock by the end of the week. So getting a big number on day one can be critical. While today's activity was very busy through the first portion of the day, by the second half of the eight-plus hour shift, I could have sworn it was Wednesday already - and I know we were not the only ones with serious gaps in visitors.

But interestingly, despite the relative quiet, as I also experienced at Storage Networking World in Orlando at the beginning of the month during parts of that show, those attendees who are making the visit and the inquiries are those who we should be talking to. It could be that companies who lived through the last recession have learned to save money by not sending more than the critically necessary attendees to said events, effectively aiding them and the vendors who see them by improving the signal while lessening the noise.

If you are a technology marketer deciding whether or not to spend your money on trade shows this year, I wouldn't recommend outright pulling the plug. If you reduce your presence, end users will understand your desire to save money. But if your competitors go and you don't, they've got a beeline to deals that should be yours. And if you're a technology purchaser wondering if you should go to a show, ask around the office, and see if somebody with better focus can go on your behalf. It will make sense for your budget and for the vendor ecosystem as well. I hope that what I'm seeing so far this year displays this is already happening.

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