Conference and Sales Culture (Part 1)

In-person trade shows: What is their value?

(Panel discussion at embedded world 2019, Photo by: NuernbergMesse / Frank Boxler)

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What's the point of trade shows? In view of the high costs, they are being questioned, especially in the USA, because supposedly everything can be done online. Not quite, as a discussing the pros and cons shows.

Early in my career, trade shows were where I went to make discoveries of new technologies or to learn how people solved the problems that I had. For example, if I wanted to build my own printed circuit board manufacturing capability, I would go to a PCB trade show to learn about all of the equipment I needed, what is available, who supplies what, the cost of equipment, and generally to learn what issues I needed to address. Others value trade shows for the economy of in-person meetings (i.e.: travel once, visit many), for the pursuit of mutual benefits, or to advance common interests. Trade shows are still useful for these but, at least in the United States, there are fewer in-person trade shows being held and this is not simply due to COVID-19. This article is written for those trying to justify whether or not to attend an in-person trade show and it mentions my favorite for embedded engineers. It provides some factors to help you make your decision.

We can look to Michael Porter and his five forces of competitive threats to determine why in-person trade shows are waning in the USA. These forces are the:
1. Threat of new entrants
2. Threat of substitutes
3. Bargaining power of customers
4. Bargaining power of suppliers
5. Threat of rivals

Of the threats, the internet has to be the greatest - the threat of substitutes. With the benefit of search engines, it is possible to find anything existing and available online that I can think of. True enough, there can be a lot of noise in search results but with adequate knowledge of search engines' advanced search features, you can nearly always find a solution - if it exists.

By visiting companies' websites, it is easy to discover what is new and, subscribing to those companies' mailing lists, will even get them to send you a regular email to keep you abreast of their developments. Albeit, you might not know what companies to visit if you are new to an industry. This might be satisfied by visiting distributors' websites. Distributors serve an industry via an aggregate of suppliers and they make it their business to find the latest new products and suppliers to add to their line cards.

With the benefit of online video conferencing software like Zoom, Webex, Teams, Meet, and still others, we can get some of the interaction you get at an in-person event, but online events miss something that in-person events have. I think this boils down to the serendipity of chance meetings and discoveries. Online loses the comradery of peers and it is easier to be distracted during a presentation. We are used to hitting the pause button when watching a video or using to switch windows. Online requires being deliberate when setting your agenda. It’s harder to depend on a lucky encounter. I’d say there is less spontaneity when online. It's hard to see what's attracting people to something you didn’t know about. Simply put, I believe in-person events have a better halo effect. I have more to say about this later.

Of course, there is also the cost of attending an in-person trade show: time away from the office, lodging expense, travel expense, and others but the big expenses are those of the exhibitors. From their perspective, they have costs to generate graphics that attract you. They have costs to fabricate their booths in order to host you should you visit. They pay a registration fee to have space for their booths and they have sponsorship opportunities to give them a larger presence at the venue. They don’t want to lose you as a lead, so they also buy lead retrieval devices and deploy sales people to man their booths whether you visit or not.

Speaking of you as a lead, there is no getting away from being tracked. This happens with online and in-person trade shows. It’s debatable which does a better job of tracking you but I think it is the online event and with today’s predictive analytics, it’s also debatable which does better job of qualifying you. Every interaction you make on a computer is easily recorded and subsequently mined. A salesperson doesn’t want to alienate you to the point of losing you as a prospective customer whereas no one is looking to form a one-to-one relationship when you are nothing more than data. Technology tracking companies seem to be working more for themselves than for you. Once put on an emailing list, you seem to forever be on someone’s list as many of those lists are sold and traded. It’s hard to keep your online data and your metadata private.
Attendance means mental presence
Still, the largest in-person trade shows - those attracting the most of us - are very expensive for exhibitors but what is it that attracts you to the in-person trade show?

Couple the upside benefits with the downside costs of in-person trade shows and you have a solid basis to understand why in-person trade shows are waning but coming back to a better halo effect with in-person events, they require your mental presence. I find it easier to remain focused when it is harder to switch my attention. I have two monitors on my computer, and I never put the online event I am “watching” on both monitors. My second monitor is there reminding me of other things I want to and need to do. Of course, this is not really different from using your smartphone during an in-person presentation, but it is easy to put the phone in your pocket to keep it from distracting you. So, I am more attentive at an in-person event.

When I am “present,” I can look to my peers to see if what impresses or confuses me has the same effect on them. Audience awareness helps me be aware of what is important, and I can nudge my neighbor to get a quick answer to “what did he say?” I can also hear the spontaneous chuckles or sighs. After the presentation, I can see how many hands are up wanting to ask a question. I claim there is more engagement at in-person events, and this results in "lucky" discoveries.

(to be continued, author: Randall Restle, WEKA Facmedien)