One of the benefits of living in an Internet-enabled wired and wireless age is that we all have incredible access to a seemingly endless supply of information and content. In these plugged-in times, we can tune into events and news almost as they happen, and online and virtual information channeling has the potential to sway and influence large segments of the population. Just ask Democratic hopeful Howard Dean about the power of the virtual press...although his replay may have been more positive and supportive prior to recent losses in statewide primaries.
Of course, one of the curses of a virtually limitless pool of information is that too much access is not necessarily a good thing. Just before starting this column, for example, we did a Google search on "Shoreline Research" and came up with approximately 274,000 references to our humble corporate identifier. Granted, healthy chunk of these have absolutely nothing to do with the fantastic and incredibly useful service we provide to the industry, but that only adds to the static and confusion resulting from information overload.
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This is why we think trade shows and events are such a terrific platform for gathering information, pinpointing solutions and getting a firsthand look at new and emerging technologies. As one of our analyst friends continually points out, one of the most valuable assets of trade shows is their ability to set of a forum where people can meet face-to-face to exchange ideas and establish formal and informal allegiances. You can't do this through email, Web conferencing or any other virtual technology that is often a part of the info-glut wave and fosters "hit and miss" connections that usually fade in the ether. Besides, who wants to wade into the flotsam and jetsam of Viagra ads and low mortgage rate pitches each day to troll for solutions and business opportunities? We do it because we have to, but do we really want to endure SPAM tetanus shots each time we fire up our PCs and browser software?
We agree that large and unfocused trade conferences and events are hurting badly. The hardest hit are the Comdex events, Comnet (which we recently attended in Washington, D.C.), and a myriad of smaller and less-focused events that promote technology without offering too much in terms of solutions and real world advice. In fact, all conference events are impacted by current restrictions on corporate travel, the hassles of airline travel, tight budgets, and even tighter executive agendas.
It is very easy to take pot shots at these industry gatherings, without providing any real constructive advice or suggestions for improvements. One public relations company -- that will diplomatically remain anonymous, but whose name might trigger thoughts of a particular type of Caribbean dancing -- recently trashed the Comnet conference, citing attendance figures that were way off base and impressions that were highly biased. We were there and can tell you that although overall attendance was very low, the numbers at some all-day solutions-based sessions and even many of the less intense panel meetings were quite respectable. The wireless sessions, in particular, were well attended -- despite a major snow and ice storm that pretty much scrambled public and private transportation.
Most exhibitors at Comnet were naturally disappointed at the low traffic on the show floor, but in the same breath quite a few agreed that the caliber of the people who were there was quite impressive. Among those in attendance and spending quite a lot of time with vendors were the chief executive of Amtrak and executive influencers from Lucent and other networking companies. Our opinion on the critics: If you can't say something constructive and useful and unbiased, then don't say anything at all.
With that philosophy in mind, we will admit that the era of the large and unfocused trade show is coming to an end and the industry is ready for a new and more "ROI-centric" information model. The time is ripe to build upon communities and conference franchises that were thought leaders in the past, and to construct new and more interactive events that effectively bring people together for face-to-face problem solving and idea exchanges. Most conference organizations recognize this need and are already working to create new and more easily accessed platforms for discussion and technology support and focus. Some will be more effective than others in making the transition, while a few dinosaur diehards will stick with the large-show scheme and quickly fade from the IT roadmap.
Our advice for pinpointing and selecting the right conferences and events over the coming years:
Look for conferences and gatherings that stress solutions over simple technology presentations. Just as magazines and other publications strive to attract readers by developing compelling headlines and content pages that stress exactly what the articles hope to say and accomplish, conference groups should develop programs that can identify real problems and challenges, and then offer answers and alternatives to attendees. If you cannot walk away from a conference with a pocketful of ideas and answers, then you probably should have just walked away from the event entirely.
General conferences are dead, especially those that are focused on wireless LANs, which are evolving to become as commoditized as those fabric-covered cubicle walls common to most office spaces. Search out those events that target specific industry niches and serve individual communities of users. These are the ones that can best serve your needs because they are designed to approach solutions from a unique industry perspective. The people involved in pharmaceuticals really do not care about solutions that are designed for the utilities industries. An event should be wrapped around a business segment model, and should offer solutions for specific problems.
Regional events, or those that take place in multiple cities and then focus on technology areas that are most common to those cities and areas, will become more popular and influential over the next few years. Let's face it: No one likes to travel much anymore, and the executives who do travel usually limit their yearly trade show attendance to just a handful of highly-specific events. Why? Because these are the events that will attract most of their current and potential customers and their peers.
Executives also do not like to be away from the office attending multi-day trade show for too long. Call it corporate paranoia or just smart business sense, but the general feeling today is that the less time spent at these events and traveling to them the better. A better solution is to drop into a local event or information summit for a day or half-day, get a useful dose of solutions and ideas, and then get back to the office or a customer meeting by that afternoon. Conference companies can feed this need by developing well-planned regional events, and building community that keeps attendees informed and plugged in (there's that term again!) between information fixes.
Vendor exhibits and presentations usually stress technology capabilities over solutions, so search of those conferences where what is happening on the exhibit floor is closely tied to what is being discussed and resolved in the conference rooms. If discussions center on how to manage mobility in a geographically-dispersed corporation, hen make it easy for attendees to know that such solutions are being demonstrated in Aisle 400 of the exhibits area. This is a tougher strategy, since it takes planning and perhaps a whole new job description within these conference and exhibit groups -- a solutions strategist, perhaps. Vendors also have to do a bit more homework in terms of what is one the discussion agenda and how they can get more involved and integrated. The result, though, is an end to the Night of the Living Dead experience of most trade events, where attendees are aimlessly walking the show floor looking for some focused bit of nourishment for their solutions-starved brain.
Look for those conference groups that are more concerned with building an information-sharing community than making a quick buck. The bottom line is to make a dollar in this tough business, but the long-term way to do that is by establishing direct and sometimes not-so-direct programs that pull people together in one or more groups that are individually focused on specific areas and concerns. The groups can be aligned by geography, technology segment, industry niche, solutions concerns, and even educational goals. And by the way, most vendors recognize this and have initiated targeted efforts that are collectively called "channel activities."
Naturally, we have a whole bunch of ideas for reinventing the trade show model and creating a new solutions-sharing platform. However, we would be much more interested in your thoughts and suggestions. Let us know by sending these to us at email@example.com. We'll report back on the best and most creative, and continue working with major conference and trade groups to build a better executive information mousetrap.
Tim Scannell is the president and chief analyst with Shoreline Research, a Quincy, Mass.-based consulting company specializing in mobile and wireless technology and initiatives. Shoreline works with end users, looking to implement mobile solutions, and vendors, developing new products and seeking business and customer opportunities. The company also specializes in training and strategic planning projects. For more information on Shoreline Research and the company's strategic services please go to http://www.shorelineresearch.com.