Our Trade Shows Need New Tricks

By: Howard I. Finberg

I have always enjoyed technology trade shows such as the Newspaper Association of America’s Nexpo. I remember attending my first newspaper technology event more than 15 years ago. It wasn’t even called Nexpo back then, but it was pretty exciting stuff.

I was thinking about those early shows while on a long plane ride back from Ifra’s Expo 2001 in Geneva. I was wondering why it seems that some of that excitement has gone out of the trade-show experience. While attendance has been hurt by belt-tightening across the industry, there is more to it than cutbacks in newspaper travel budgets.

The change I am talking about has struck at a much deeper level. I decided the Internet was the culprit. It has stolen the thunder of new-product rollouts that used to rumble through the aisles of convention halls.

The Net has fundamentally changed the trade-show experience for good and bad. In the “good old days,” a trade show played a very important role in providing product information for customers. In fact, it played a central role of distributing information about products and how they could be used.

Many vendors and expo organizers have yet to realize this. They need to adapt the trade-show experience to the changing needs of their customers. Let’s look at three activities — product use, information, and peer experiences — and consider some of the changes that have already arrived.

Product demonstrations: In the pre-Internet era, for most attendees, a trade show was the only way to get information about how a product worked and its technical specifications. It was an opportunity to explore the nuts and bolts. In the Internet Age, product specifications and frequently asked questions are posted on company Web sites. Some company sites have interactive demonstrations of their products or services. You get to look at the information when you have time, not when the vendor is doing a demonstration.

Industry trends: If you attended enough demonstrations during a trade show visit in the pre-Internet era, you might be able to see industry trends. You picked up pieces of information, like pieces of string, as to how the vendors saw the world. If you were lucky, you had a chance to share your thoughts with vendors about the “big picture.” Along comes the Net and we have more trends than we know what to do with. Those digital pieces of information have turned into large balls of string, almost too large to unravel.

Peer experiences: Pre-Internet, you went through a trade show and then attended the “peer get-together.” For most of us, this was the only time we had substantive communication with friends and colleagues in the industry. This is when we got the skinny about how things were going (which systems worked and which ones didn’t). At this point, e-mail and discussion forums have taken the place of some of those “must attend” after-hours sessions. Today, you get to ask not only your friends but also anyone in the industry who participates in an electronic discussion forum about how to solve problems or find new revenue sources. And you can get your answers publicly or privately.

I am not suggesting that the Internet has made trade shows passe. Rather, I think it is time that vendors rethink how they can put excitement back in the shows.

Here are a few possible ways:

* More formal industry discussions on the showroom floor. One of the things that a vendor has is a unique perspective on the industry it serves. Why not share some of those thoughts with potential and existing customers? Along with product demonstrations, give presentations on trends and developments in the segment of the industry you serve. In addition, a vendor can have a perspective that cuts across various industries. Share that perspective with your customers and potential customers.

* More direct acknowledgment that the newspaper business has changed and that no single vendor can or will supply every solution. It is a cutthroat business, but there are times when working together would be to the customer’s benefit (and the vendor’s). Candid discussions about how vendors could work together on a project would be of great interest. That would put more buzz in the expo hall.

* More dialog among customers and noncustomers and vendors about the business challenges everyone is facing. Customers need to make sure suppliers understand the threats and opportunities our business faces. We often don’t share concerns about fundamental changes to our business and miss opportunities to shape the products we will eventually purchase and install.

* More vision. This is the toughest request, but customers want to know that their suppliers have a vision of the future and are not focused on just what they can do for customers at present.

None of what I suggest should take away from the experience of “kicking the tires” on the software and hardware being shown at various expos. But due to the Internet, vendors, like the newspaper industry, need to change how they attract and meet the needs of their customers of today — and customers of tomorrow.

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