Off-White Paper #21 – FOSE, the “Big Bag Theory”, The Creation of Myths and Marketing Myopia

Many things occurred at FOSE this year. For those who don’t know, FOSE is the grand-daddy of and sole survivor of the government computer conference wars (George Lucas stole the idea and put it in outer space). In the beginning (in a galaxy far, far away), there was the Federal ADP Show (which evolved into FOSE), FedUnix, Federal Computer Conference, GCN Expo, FedMicro, GovProExpo, GovTechNet, and eGov (which also survives, but isn’t really a computer show). Lots of shows, for when computers were young and sexy, not mundane and pervasive. FOSE was held at the new Washington Convention Center. Darn good thing for those signs and staff to direct us. The Convention Center is huge, and while FOSE is adequately sized by DC trade show standards (though it is barely one third of its early 1990s size), it is small in the Convention Center. They were able to fill a significant hall, though, but it was not so crowded as to seem rushed either day I was there. FOSE’s radio spot touted the “tens of thousands” of attenders expected Tens of tens, definitely. Tens of hundreds, yes. Tens of thousands – no way. If they were including all of the workers and Convention Center staff, and the cabbies and pedestrians in the immediate vicinity, they might break (barely) into the multiple “tens” category – with two tens. Maybe. FOSE’s main direct mail promotional effort was an over-sized post card with a picture of kids trick-or-treating. The caption: “What you won’t find at FOSE”. Call it literary license, hyperbole, or wishful thinking: their advertising could fertilize small countries. What did we see at FOSE was hundreds of people lined up for worthless toys, trinkets, bags, and other alleged goodies. And yes, I got my fair share, though not from the “house”. MicroWarehouse knew the “trick or treaters” would be there and catered to them. The “house” had the most booth traffic, a perpetual line waiting to get into the inner sanctum of trinket-dom “Oh Look! A flashlight! On a key ring! How unique!” “And not one t-shirt, but two. A very manly pink and baby barf green.” Here in the inner sanctum, they also asked people to trade their CDW bags for MicroWarehouse bags, a stunt pulled by CDW on GTSI when the new MicroWarehouse crew was at CDW. Juvenile, yes, but “oh so annoying”. Do decision-makers have time to stand in line for trinkets? None that I know, and I have never seen any senior people waiting in line at any show since the early 1990s, and very few then. This is branding? Word on the floor was the “House” spent around $1,000,000, all told. When FOSE saw them coming, the voice at the drive-thru asked: “Would you like to super-size that?” But the Bag Wars… The Big Bag Theory The theory goes something like this: He with the most, the biggest, brightest bag wins. Wins “what”, we’re not sure. Maybe win bragging rights to whose bag will annoy more people on the subway, make it harder to get into and out of cabs, fill up more trash cans (and there were hundreds in trash containers in the Convention Center), hold more cat litter, or win the annual Amtower Award for Big Bag? The “battle of the bags” also did not disappoint. The official results: CDW-G: biggest overall bag at 18x24x8 (qualifies as a luxury hotel room in the far East) MicroWarehouse: 2nd with 19x21x8.25 GSTI 3rd with 15x22x6 Brightest bag: I still think CDW-G has the brightest with the bright yellow and red. My wife said the Warehouse pink and yellow bag is as bright. So it’s a toss-up. But here is what I saw on the floor: many MicroWarehouse bags all over the floor, and about 25% of them inside the CDWG bags; some GTSI bags on the floor (tropical pastels, they were harder to spot), and a few others much less conspicuous. My favorite bag? The Exabyte bag, as it was the only canvas bag (13x16x4.5) available at the show, and I had several people ask me where I got it. And in the trash cans on the way out of the convention center? – hundreds of big bags. The annual Amtower Award for Big Bag winner, and the winner of the battle of the bags, is GovConnection. I saw their marketing manager on the first day of the show, and he told me they weren’t exhibiting, but saving their money for more tactical efforts. MicroWarehouse also had a mini-blimp floating around the hall (apparently radio controlled). Which leads to The Creation of a Myth On the last day of the show, Alan Bechara (GM of PC Mall’s government division) was at the Exabyte booth. Here, he was dive-bombed by the MicroWarehouse blimp. The usually quiet and unassuming Bechara pivoted, and planted a right cross smack on the nose of the blimp, whereupon it promptly deflated. Ain’t nobody gonna mess with “One-Punch Al” anymore. Stand back, here comes the man who took out MicroWarehouse with a single punch. I have a new hero, the Jedi, “One Punch” Bechara. I understand several MicroWhiners followed him to his booth (well out of right cross range), complaining of mistreatment. They even brought a FOSE security guard over, who questioned him at a distance, also staying out of range. When “One Punch” feinted toward them, they all ran screaming into “tens of tens” crowding the aisles. “One Punch” Bechara, able to leap small booths in a single bound… Which leads to… Marketing Myopia Big shows eat big bucks. Period. Attendance is down at major events across the board. Comdex filed for bankruptcy. Big computer shows are dinosaurs. They serve no useful purpose, except to fill the coffers of those saying “if you’re not here, you’re not a player.” FOSE has no focus. If it did, it would have a tag line, one that made sense and was much better than “Technology Unites Us.” The only thing that got united at FOSE was the “I hate MicroWarehouse” club. What the “house” probably doesn’t understand is that in irritating lots of people, they (MicroW) united them (other resellers) against a common foe. Kind of like Napoleon: too many fronts. One CEO was heard complaining to his staff about being dwarfed and “out-marketed” by the “House”, and not letting this happen next year: what can they do to be bigger at FOSE next year? Wrong question. A better question is why care about a DC-centric show full of trinket collectors? Why not spend you money on tactical marketing, smaller events that are less cluttered and where real face time with real customers occurs? Another PC vendor complained about the lack of uniformed personnel. I know that the Federal Business Council hosted an event at the Defense Intelligence Agency Thursday (the last day of FOSE) and had over 300 people. And the same day at Hanscom AFB, they had 275. You want uniformed personnel – go where they are, especially when many of them are deployed. Dell, the largest of the IT vendors, had a modest presence, actually behind Micron PC (now MPC). Taking a cue from Compaq, which pulled out several years ago. I’m wagering Dell won’t be at FOSE next year. Think it’ll hurt their #1 Schedule 70 standing? Not a chance. It is not a crime not to exhibit at FOSE. The argument that “you’re not a player unless you’re there” wasn’t valid when there were 50,000 attenders, and is less so now. The real question is how much of your money can you throw away being ignored in a large exhibit hall, versus the number of tactical events you could do for the same money. Or the amount of direct mail you could send. Or how you can finally get around to creating a great web site, as opposed to having it on your “to do” list. MicroWarehouse was as close to show domination as you can get, except?that in the Exhibitor Guide, even though they had a full page advertisement, their listing in the alpha-portion of the Guide was plain vanilla – no colored box like many others. And the Exhibitor Guide has more shelf life than the big bags. Copyright 2003, Amtower & Company