The end of an era

Written by Brett Thomas

February 24, 2007 | 13:21

Tags: #trade-show

Companies: #cebit #ces #via

With all of the wonderful things I've seen and done while working for bit-tech, the trade show memories have to be my favourite. I love them - the chaos, the sights, the sounds, the people...the entire atmosphere is electric. The days on a trade show floor are murder on the body and an absolute exercise in concentration, efficiency and organization.

That's probably one reason why they seem to be vanishing faster than the Wii when it hits a store shelf.

Yep, it's sad to say, but it's true - for those of you who haven't seen the magic of a CES, CeBIT, or E3, I'm afraid there won't be many more to see. Trade shows are one of the longest-running traditions of this industry, but each year it seems more and more like they are disappearing into nothingness. Mark my words, dear friends, the days of the trade show are numbered.

How did I reach this conclusion? After all, it is a rather sweeping statement, and attendance at shows keeps climbing. Well, the fuel for this idea took place in a conversation between Richard and myself. We had been discussing my CES experience and VIA's choice to not attend CeBIT when it dawned on me. The success of the trade show isn't about who is attending - it's more about who is not.

There is no doubt that a show like CeBIT or CES looks (at least from the outside) perfectly healthy. Companies like Microsoft, Intel and Creative shower the trade show floors with lavish booths, grand designs, 37 PR people per square foot, and flashing lights and loud noise everywhere. Products abound, televisions provide as much glow as the lights; now, more than ever, a trade show is truly a sight to behold.

And therein lies the rub - it's no longer a trade anything. It's a media circus, a glamour and glitz spectacle where those who can spend it, do; and those who can't get lost in the background noise. If you have enough booth space to house a stage and enough money to pay some people to stand on it, you can drown out everybody in a five-booth radius that isn't competing with similar firepower.

The biggest realization came as I reminisced on CES again, and I thought of how many companies didn't really show new products. Instead, they showed current ones, products you could buy right now - and they could sell them to you right there. Many booths had stores built in where you could buy their wares, as if I were at some giant electronics bazaar. I don't think that's what the event creators meant with the term "Buyer."

"It's a media circus, a glamour and glitz spectacle where those who can spend it, do."

To sell you these products, the booths are filled with representatives who know little to nothing about the products in front of representative at a booth (which shall remain nameless) even told me, "Yeah, I don't even know why I'm here...I know nothing about this stuff." When, realizing what I was dealing with, I began to wander round the booth solo (sparing myself considerable agony), he approached me again and said, "Hi, welcome to [company x]. Would you like to hear about our monitors?" He had completely forgotten speaking with me only moments before.

Speaking of people telling me things, on the plane to CES I had run into at least four people going to the convention. Of the four of them, only one had anything to do with the actual industry, and he was a PR person working for a manufacturer. On the plane back, I talked to three more, each of whom went "on a whim" and had a tangential contact with the industry at best. "Tangential" is being nice - "My brother works at Best Buy" isn't exactly a real close affiliation.

One of these gentlemen even asked me how I liked the show, then told me about how he and his friend went on behest of his cousin, who loaned him his identity as a movie rental store owner. When I asked him why he had attended, his reply was: "Why not? I want to see all the new stuff!"

Isn't that what the press is for? Of course, for me to go, I had to submit two of my stories published within six months just the for pre-screening. Once at the on-site check-in, I had to provide a business card illustrating my name and position at bit-tech and my drivers' license.

I don't begrudge the check-in, it's that way for a reason. And I don't mean to sound like this is some velvet rope or posh country club which the riff-raff have crashed. But the point of a trade show is to keep the general consumer out so that those in the industry can conduct real business. Buyers of raw material, technology, and end products alike are interfaced with sellers and manufacturers who can provide it to them.

For those who cannot attend or for those who just want to see the latest and greatest stuff (which, face it, is most of us), the press is allowed in - we write it, you read it, and everyone is happy. At its most basic, the concept of a trade show is to provide a place to conduct business without the need for a mass-market consumer spectacle.
As the gatekeepers fall asleep and entry requirements grow lax, a downward spiral forms. By letting these people in, the show attendance continues to increase to new heights each year. This is exactly what the organizers want, as it illustrates the "relevance" of the show. Headlines everywhere read, "CES holds record attendance," or "Many thousands flock to CeBIT."

That front-page headline comes at a very dear price.The increased traffic and gawking get in the way of buyers trying to find products and conduct business, so they stop going. Trade-show floor space is expensive, so companies looking for genuine buyers stop going. Why pay for that space when you used to see 20,000 people who wanted to buy hundreds or thousands of your product, and now you see 70,000 who might want to buy one, the next time they upgrade?

Of course, this then frees up more space for elaborate booths bought by companies just looking to make a PR scene. They use this space to throw up more stages and more sales kiosks, to make it more visually appealing for the people who shouldn't be there, but are. So next year, more of them come.

The cycle repeats until any semblance of industry trade is gone, replaced with a giant consumer orgy. The problem is, the only one getting screwed is the guy who's there to do business, and he doesn't like it one bit. After all, he's the one who's footing the bill.

To counteract this, companies there to actually talk to either press or buyers do one of two things. Either they rent a suite in a nearby hotel or other facility and allow access by invite only (which many in our industry of performance PC parts do), or they just don't go at all.

Companies who do the former create a show outside of the show, a place outside the chaos where actual business can get done. Those who do the latter simply invite everyone out when all the hoopla calms down and save a lot of money - even if they pay the plane fare for everyone who would have been genuinely interested in their products.

"The cycle repeats until any semblance of industry trade is gone, replaced with a giant consumer orgy."

No matter which of those options is chosen, what matters is that the show itself isn't. The trade show as we know it is dying. In its place lies a brightly lit shell packed with public relations fluff and household names. The shows have lost all of their relevance for the people who actually pay for them - the companies. Rather than a place of business, it's now a marketer's paradise.

It would be great if I could feel like I was just crying wolf, but one only need to look at history to see the writing is written clearly on the wall. For instance, who here goes to COMDEX any more? It used to be much bigger than CES - but you likely haven't even heard of it, since it's been closed for some time. Exhibitors moved out to suites or just stopped going - and now the same thing is happening to CeBIT. And from my CES experiences, that show won't be long to follow.

VIA pulling out of CeBIT is not nearly the little blip on the radar that the industry would like to pretend. It is an illustration of a true change in direction - where the industry can no longer be as open or friendly. Technology has become an aggressive market where several people offer the same product and one main differences is the margin of profit - spending that kind of money to not even connect with massive buyers is just not in the budget. And if you read about why the company chose not to attend, the answer was simple - the show isn't really that relevant for the price.

For every end user who slips in the door, another buyer walks out. The innovative, smaller companies who used to use this space to get their one big shot at catching somebody's attention no longer attend. Instead, they get bought out by a big company who devotes a team to find a patent filing or something similar, never to be heard from again. That same end user then curses the shelves at his or her local store, wondering why nobody but Microsoft, Panasonic, or Intel invent anything anymore.

The true divide between a successful show and one that is going downhill is the presence not of the media-hounding, bigtime front-page guy - it's more about the one there to do quiet, efficient business. It's about the guy who has his place in the industry, not the front page of the press or the discount aisle at the shops. That guy is comfortable with that role, and is often a longstanding and respected member of the industry. It's guys like VIA, who are realizing that it is truly the end of an era.
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