Can we fix tradeshows? Our veteran showman suggests some open-source solutions.
Put together the badges I've worn at tradeshows, and you'd have enough to tile a wall. I've played about every role possible at a show: panelist, attendee, exhibitor, keynote speaker, organizer, booth builder, reporter and promoter. And I've been at it since the Dawn of Disco.
What amazes me, after all these years, is how technologies have gone through one revolution after another, while their tradeshows hardly have changed at all. Take a time machine back to Comdex in 1984 and, aside from such wireless graces as cell phones and Wi-Fi, it looks pretty much the same as the one we'll see this fall. How come?
One reason is tradeshows are markets in the ancient and literal sense of the word. They are the industrial equivalents of the tents and stalls that gathered at crossroads and village plazas back when trade began, long before the birth of currency and the study of economics. For the industrial categories we call markets, tradeshows provide a literal marketplace where buyers, sellers and experts can gather to meet, do business and advance agreements about what makes their category worthwhile. For a few days every year the virtual market becomes a real one.
Today the term market applies to every category and subcategory, even to specialties within specialties. Some tradeshows broadly support whole industrial pies, while others serve various slices. The largest tradeshow in the world, CeBit in Germany, covers information technology and telecommunications. I've never been to CeBit, but I have been to Comdex—its domestic equivalent—a dozen times or more. Mostly, however, I attend niche shows. In the last few years, in addition to Linux shows, I've attended and often spoken at shows about identity management, open source, emerging technologies, computing and communications platforms, Macintosh and Mac OS X, Jabber, BSD, Apache, embedded technology, interactivity, new products and technologies, computer product distribution, blogging, peer-to-peer, activist politics, privacy and security, technology impact on people, customer service, government technology and electronic commerce—to name the shows I can remember attending without looking at old calendars.
Although the subjects of these conferences differed widely, and although they variously were called conferences, conventions, shows, events, expos, workshops and -cons of various sorts, they generally held to long-established tradeshow conventions. Let's look at those conventions:
First, tradeshows gather five types of people:
Exhibitors, including employees staffing booths.
Speakers, usually keynoters and panelists for breakout sessions.
Attendees, who visit vendors and listen to speakers.
Press and analysts, who report on vendors and speakers.
PR people, who help transmit vendor information to press and analysts.
Shows make money from both exhibitors and attendees. Exhibitors spend many thousands of dollars for booth space, and attendees spend either a small sum to visit exhibitors or a larger sum to attend keynotes and breakout sessions.
Some shows, such as Pop!Tech (www.poptech.org), don't include vendors. Others, such as Demo (www.demo.com), showcase only vendors' new products. But those shows are exceptions. On the whole, the system I described above is pro forma.
Many tradeshow formalities are defaulted by their venues as well. Hotels and convention centers exist in large measure to serve tradeshows. Doing that requires highly formalized architectures and ritualized procedures. Flexible meeting space, for example, is achieved by partitioning larger rooms into smaller ones. Speakers are expected to stand behind podiums, and panelists sit behind tables on stages at the fronts of rooms. Projectors are provided for presentations or video enlargements of the speakers and panelists.
These architectural and procedural defaults make two assumptions:
What matters most is helping vendors sell stuff to customers.
In a similar way, knowledge flows top-down, from speakers to audiences.
Yet, thanks to the Net, markets today are more connected than ever and less hierarchical. (“Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy”, David Weinberger says.) Customers, along with everybody else, are educating themselves and one another, directly. More market participants are in positions to teach as well as learn. Large corporate players are no longer the primary sources of wisdom about the markets they lead. Every market's wisdom today is highly distributed and able to distribute itself any way it pleases: e-mails, personal publications on-line, wikis, IM, IRC and other forms of social computing, as well as through ad hoc meetings in meat space.
So it's no surprise to hear that attrition now is a problem in the tradeshow business and that the networked marketplace is a part of the problem. Meetings & Conventions, in the January 2004 issue, says:
The instances of attendees circumventing traditional registration to book through on-line third-party providers has avalanched, leaving planners increasingly frustrated and making attrition a major issue for associations.
In 2004, a number of hotels will team up with planners to fight the problem on a united front. “Hotel companies traditionally have stayed on the sidelines and said, 'We are protected by a contract. It's the customer's problem,'” says Joel Pyser, vice president of field sales for Bethesda, Maryland-based Marriott International Inc. “Well, we can't afford to do that any longer. No one enjoys presenting a customer with an attrition bill. We have to partner with them to solve it.”
In this case, notice, the customer is the company that puts on the tradeshow, not the hotel guest who attends the tradeshow. That individual is still a consumer:
Web surfing for the lowest rate has become a consumer sport. It also is a major thorn for planners managing room blocks. The Alexandria, Virginia-based International Society of Hospitality Consultants estimates on-line bookings accounted for 30%–40% of all reservations booked within a four-week arrival window in 2003—up 20 percent over pre-9/11 numbers.
Of course, this top-down perspective will remain ingrained to the degree that the bulk of income flows from large corporate customers. Still, it seems to me that this whole industry could benefit from the same open-source value system and development methods that caused the growth of Linux and the Net.
In that spirit, I'd like to share the best of what I've learned from the best of the tradeshows I've attended over the last few years. Here goes:
Hold collegial meetings, not sessions. Some of the best sessions at conferences are the BoFs, or birds-of-a-feather sessions, held after hours. O'Reilly does an excellent job of aspiring to this format, even in its standard sessions.
Insist on long Q&A periods after lectures, with many working microphones to pass around the audience.
Record all sessions and make them available on-line in open audio formats. This also helps sell attendees on coming to the next conference.
Use conversation-friendly venues. Pop!Tech is held in an old opera house in downtown Camden, Maine. The feeling of the whole place is cozy and comfortable, and somehow it helps make the audience more involved with each talk.
Try forbidding vendor pitches. The first BloggerCon wasn't a vendor venue. It was held at Harvard, in lecture rooms. But vendor pitches still were discouraged, and it helped open conversation to topics that transcended market economics.
Make the Web a living and permanent resource and document archive. Here nobody beats O'Reilly's system, which includes the company's own writers, as well as pointers to writing done by outsiders covering or attending the event.
Provide wireless Net connections. It was at Esther Dyson's PC Forum that I first witnessed a complete power shift from stage to audience, thanks to Net-connected Wi-Fi. That was three years ago. Since then many other events have added Wi-Fi, but the practice is far from standard. It should be.
Start topical conversations in advance of the show. Jerry Michalski pioneered this when he was involved in PC Forum, many years ago. Today his retreats are meetings for a persistent community that stays in touch by e-mail, wiki and other methods. Countless constructive new conversations have been started and sustained by these off-conference methods.
Hold hack-a-thons. Your event's name doesn't need to end in hack for hack-a-thons to work. ApacheCon launches itself with a hack-a-thon that's not to be missed, even if you're not a hacker. It begins the event with a sense that stuff can be done.
If you have any other ideas, send them here or to your friendly conference planner. If we do this thing right, we might revolutionize another industry.