Ahead of Interop in Vegas this May, I assigned one of my editors the task of talking with some of the 400-plus exhibitors slated for the trade show about the decision-making process that led them to make the commitment in the face of tight budgets for marketing, travel and the like. We expect that some vendors will cite the opportunity to demonstrate their strength in the market, a timely situation to capitalize on, especially valuable if competitors have dropped out of the show circuit. Microsoft will be there as a sponsor of NAC Day, featuring its Interoperability by Design concept, and educating attendees about its partnership with Novell, contributions to open source projects, open protocols to its projects and related projects.
While some are taking the pulse of the tech trade show, as well as other industry events conducted in person, I don't think they're quite as dead as all that. Like the newspaper industry, events are in a transition period, and what they look like a couple of years or so from now depends on the benefits that organizers, exhibitors and attendees decide they must retain and how they can preserve them while spending a little less at the same time. CRM Buyer's Denis Pombriant writes that Microsoft looks like a dinosaur with its New Orleans Convergence user convention, compared to Oracle's one-day online user expo the same week. He doesn't think one meeting type will prevail completely, but lists the obvious payoffs of the virtual convention: no travel costs for anyone, no equipment or entertainment costs for vendors and a chance to claim a green position on the whole deal. And without the need for all other events to be planned and scheduled around a big, physical annual meeting, perhaps more events will be held online -- meetings that are much more specialized and focused, and that will foster more interaction and innovation.
That's not all that far away from what we have. The days of physical trade shows, conventions, conferences and user meetings being isolated, finite events are long gone, with layers of social-networking tools, discussion groups on vendor sites and blogs by authority figures around the edges of every event. Sam Ramji, for example, is the guy at Interop -- and he's the Port25 blog and his Twitter profile, and maybe the guy who jumps into a forum discussion or two once in awhile. He's got a lot on his plate for this upcoming Interop, but he and his team are working the crowd online right now, and they'll continue to do so after.
Perhaps the industry will create a more obvious two-tier system. Online social networking, collaboration, events and meetings will continue to meld together, giving access to continual community and vendor support and input for free, with the occasional paid event for those who can and choose to pay the registration fees and to use part of the travel budget. At the same time, a rarefied community of elite customers and savvy, well-funded vendors will meet up at physical events, much smaller in scale but large in impact. Customer companies attend and get face time with the vendor's execs and the opportunity to present their views on how product enhancements, licensing structures, etc. should proceed. The vendor takes advantage of the event to seal the loyalty of its best customers and spends its entertainment dollars on only those customers who will create the biggest return, possibly. The fewer real-world events there are, the more attractive they should become to a subset of powerful clients.
Another factor: The exhibition industy is becoming leaner and more efficient, too, and finding ways to make the entire process more reasonable by using local materials rather than shipping entire displays, and driving harder deals with hotels and convention centers with lots of space to fill, for example.
What is the value of real-world networking in large group settings at industry events? If it bears any resemblance to something the industry did in the 20th century, is it passe? Josh Greenbaum has a thoughtful take on his experiences at Microsoft Convergence in New Orleans. While he'd love to spend less time on business travel, he finds it difficult to envision his business being as successful without the interaction and leads those efforts produce. In light of the economic downturn, the number of real-world event opportunities that Greenbaum and others will have to choose from will rely not only on their own calculations of the return, but on the ROI calculations of the organizing, sponsoring or exhibiting vendors for their expenses, but they likely won't disappear entirely.