* Surgeon general’s warning: Reading this Off-White paper can cause upset stomachs and lead to ulcers – if you produce events. It will lead to other stomach problems if you are an industry observer and an exhibitor at industry events. These problems will relate to spasms and cramps caused by laughter and choking.
There are hundreds of events weekly in Washington, DC, and I assume the same is true around the country, though perhaps to a lesser degree when it comes to government-focused events. The growth of events is seemingly exponential. In D.C., it would be possible to spend one’s professional life going from event to event, never setting foot in an office.
This has been the state of affairs here in the twenty-plus years I have been in the market, and it is not likely to change. Events are good things, especially when produced by people wired into our insular market, and when the event offers significant return on time investment (ROTI) for all involved. Cost becomes less relevant if the ROTI factor is strong.
As we know, not all events are created equal, nor are all event producers wired into this community. It could even be postulated that some event producers are here simply for the money. Throughout this paper I will name names. I cannot name all events that are good, nor will I name all events that are, in my opinion, borderline or outright bad. I will simply highlight a few that stand out in my mind, or stick in my craw.
These are my opinions, nothing more, nothing less. These opinions have been honed over 20 years in this market. I have been (and remain) an event producer, an attender of hundreds of events, a member of Boards of Advisors (FOSE and eGov, at different times), and an advisor to companies that spend serious money selecting events to support. Although I write to amuse both myself and you, I also write to educate – again both you and me – on the nuances that make some venues better than others, and render other events useless. I focus and learn more every time I write. I trust you will learn and perhaps share your lessons with me and others.
That being said, here I go again…
The Divine Right to Attention
Each week, many people forward me emails touting events: new events, established events, “agency sponsored” events, CIO level events, special interest group events, and events with so many adjectives in the description that you feel the producer is exerting a divine right to your attention. The event producers evidently feel they have this divine right as they spam you with hyperbole attempting to position themselves as the sole savior and provider of your business opportunities. If you read the e-copy, you might believe (and some actually do) that this (never before produced) event will deliver the absolute right people at a time designated by no less an authority than Nostradamus and will produce results that will make Bill Gates, Michael Dell and Sam Walton envious. Sign up at www.GiveMeYourGovMoney.com.
When you receive many of these announcements, and if you accept the carefully crafted adjectival assertions, you would immediately know that if you are not at this particular event that life would not simply pass you by, but that your career would come to a screeching halt. Time for the cyanide.
Sometimes these invitation/announcements amuse me, and other times I become incensed at the apparent arrogance of the purveyors of this crap. I spend a great deal of time writing about events for the simple reason that relationships are absolutely key in the B2G arena, and the proper event venue can help create and maintain relationships. I also write about this because there are so many events that are, at best, suspect in their respective claims. These are the blue sky events, empty venues produced by poachers, “idiot(s), full of sound and fury, (selling) nothing.”
Oh – geez, here goes Amtower off on a tangent already….relationships? What is this, Dr Phil visits Oprah?
Not at all. The connection between relationships and events is palpable. There is no better venue than the right event with the right people for relationship building in any market. And there is nothing more important in this market than building and maintaining the right relationships to grow your business. Events, special interest groups and associations are three of the main ways we meet key people and develop relationships.
In a largely overlooked book, The Anatomy of Buzz, Emanuel Rosen dissects the real power of word-of-mouth marketing and the true reach of the impact of ‘buzz”, then spends the rest of the book showing how to create and manage word-of-mouth (buzz) marketing. This is one of the few truly indispensable marketing books (http://www.federaldirect.net/recommendedreading.html), as it offers the best advice available on cost-free advertising.
So where does this bring us?
Events cost money. Period. Big events usually cost big money. This does not mean they are not useful, but the proper use of events by those attending, exhibiting, or speaking, rarely occurs. Exploiting an event to create “buzz” around you, your booth, your product/service or company is critical. Managing this buzz at and after the event is a manageable process I will deal with another time. Or you can read the book.
For those who read my now infamous Off-White 21, “FOSE, The Big Bag Theory, and the Creation of Myths” (http://www.federaldirect.net/offwhite21.html), you know that I thought FOSE 2003 was overrun by MicroWarehouse. Some of my assertions were only partially correct. MicroWarehouse was attempting to create “buzz”, and they were successful. What they were not successful at was the management of that buzz. It backfired big-time because they irritated so many people. When Off White 21 came out, there was a groundswell of support for my position because it validated what so many already thought, especially the other exhibitors at FOSE 2003. Off-White 21 became the most visited page on my web site for months, and remains popular today, a year and a half later.
There are many legitimate venues out there, events with a history, a track record that you can see. There are event producers with a pedigree, who at the request of real government agencies, will produce actual events. FOSE is among the events with history. I was on the Board of Advisors in the early 1990s (1992-94). While I think FOSE has peaked, there are those who feel strongly that “the show must go on,” and this is not simply the show producers.
Many of the blue sky event producers may actually have some track record elsewhere, in another industry. Somewhere, perhaps over the rainbow, under a beautiful blue sky that rains money. They assume, by the alleged success in these other markets, that when they announce their event in our market, the people will line up. We have all been waiting for that parade to come to town before we do anything. The blue sky events assume the announcement alone will spontaneously generate attendance, akin perhaps to spinning gold from straw. D.C. is after all, the spin capitol of the universe. Or the blue sky events assume you will think their name will instantly generate attendance, so you will send them a check immediately to be a part of this historic event. If you spend enough, your company logo might even appear on the plaque bestowed by National Historic Trust.
Many of these events are produced by P.T. Barnum wanna-bes. Marcus Evans, for instance, seems to think that CIOs are for sale, or at least for rent. Attend the Evans event, pay $85,000, and you can meet privately with several CIOs. Evans must have the CIOs mistaken for Capitol Hill denizens, many of whom are for rent, especially in an election year.
Another, Equity International, seems to think it has intellectual property dissemination rights to DHS budgetary information. I prefer Eagle Eye and Colmar Corporation for my federal budget information.
Individual Events and Producers
There are several legitimate, pedigreed government event producers in this market. The publications (Federal Computer Week, Government Computer News, and Government Executive) produce generally worthwhile events. The Federal Business Council and the Digital Government Institute produce good events. These are organizations that are hard-wired into government and industry and produce potentially valuable events. If you look at the Advisory Board for the Digital Government Institute (www.digitalgovernment.com), you will see 23 of the heaviest hitters from government and industry. I was invited to one meeting to discuss marketing and the input from these people for Ms Nelson’s program is truly extraordinary. The Federal Business Council (FBC, www.fbcinc.com) offers the broadest penetration of government from an in-agency (on site) basis of any event producer with over 150 events annually, and the venues are not simply the half-day tabletops for which FBC is known. At the request of several cabinet departments, FBC does several high-level, multi-day agency specific events.
There are a variety of smaller events, like the breakfast and after-work cocktail seminars produced by many industry contributors, like CMA and ENC Marketing. Immix produces excellent government sales seminars, OCI produces great proposal seminars. Input and Federal Sources host regular briefings from agency CIOs and others. Amtower & Company (that would be me) produces perhaps the best B2G marketing seminar (soon to be a book). The list goes on and on. There are simply too many to mention, even if they are worthwhile, and you cannot and should not attend all of them. Can’t do it- wouldn’t be prudent.
The people driving some of these are notable. Lorenz Hassenstein of PostNewsWeekTech and FOSE has impressive trade show credentials. Mike Smoyer of Federal Computer Week and the eGov Institute has equally impressive credentials. I actually met Mike way back when he worked for the original FOSE owner. Christina Nelson of the Digital Government Institute was the conference director for FOSE when Mike Smoyer was there, and Eva Neumann of ENC Marketing was the marketing director of FOSE at the same time. I was fortunate enough to be on the FOSE Board of Advisors then. Equally noteworthy but sometimes less visible are the two powers at FBC: Mike O’Neill and David Powell. Mike works the government side, while David works the industry side, and FBC has been around a long time, literally day-in and day-out. These are all people I like and respect, and who have a proven track record of adding value to our community.
Enough sucking up, Amtower, on to the dirt!
A Quick Note on Venues
The Washington Convention Center is a labyrinth worthy of Minos. You can do a marathon going from the registration area to the exhibit hall. The Reagan Center, from my perspective, is no better. While it is centrally located for Federal employees, it is not convenient for much of the vendor community. For both of these venues I need a GPS to get around. I have no alternatives to offer, as my main event venue is the Tower Club (Vienna, Virginia), where you can only have about 100 people. The McLean Hilton is better than the Sheraton Premier (both in Northern Virginia) because it has adequate parking. The Federal Business Council produced an event for NSA at the Ten Oaks Ballroom in Clarksville, Maryland which is great. Not only does it hold a decent crowd (a couple hundred, easy), it is only five minutes from my house in Highland.
Let me start this by saying up front that I am not a fan of huge trade shows for most of my clients. There are several reasons, but it boils down to this: most companies do not adequately prepare for any event, plan ahead or execute properly at trade shows. Everyone should read Barry Siskind’s books on trade show selection and marketing. Large trade shows cost big money, and simple things like booth staff training often does not occur. At FOSE, there are a variety of opportunities (special interest group meetings, technical briefings, hospitality rooms, various pavilions and demonstration areas) that you can rent or participate in to get exposure to various audience segments. For many exhibitors, things like pre-show marketing to drive targeted traffic to your booth, or to create meetings with your sales staff, either does not occur or occurs in a haphazard fashion. This is obvious when you walk by the booths of the totally unprepared.
FOSE remains the single largest event for the Federal information technology community, and if you manage your participation properly, it can bring significant results. If you do little or no active marketing for pre-show, at show or post-show, you are wasting significant funds. Even if you do the right marketing, it does not mean that those funds could not be better spent elsewhere, depending on what and how you sell to the government.
That being said, here are my FOSE 2004 impressions.
I was not there for opening day, but reports from trusted friends said traffic was good. I was there for day two, and traffic was pretty good.
The “battle of the bags” was a blow-out. CDWG dominated the show floor with the large yellow and red bag. The only competitor close was GTSI’s white bag with a large red circle, displaying the new tag line “I rely on GTSI”. I would guess CDWG had a 10-to-1 advantage on the show floor for the bags, and a huge color advantage. CDWG bags stood out; the GTSI bags did not, even with the big red circle. It was pointed out to me that the GTSI bag resembled the Japanese flag, offering a subliminal message GTSI might want to rethink.
In the battle for show floor domination, PC Mall added a twist, having the PC Mall logo on every aisle number sign. They also spent some money to have a banner that was a little wider than the CDWG and GTSI banners All three were hung at the bottom of an escalator where most people came down to the really long hall that led to the exhibit floor. Did anyone notice the extra size on the banner? It had to be pointed out to me. The larger (sic) question here is this: does visual domination of an event translate into marketshare? Alan Bechara (a friend of mine who heads up the Mall-Gov effort) needs to read Rosen’s book before the next show. If significant “buzz” can be created around the visual dominance, then it can be prolonged and managed after the event.
For better or worse, there was a void due to the absence of MicroWarehouse. The now-defunct MicroWarehouse, whose bag literally and figuratively fit inside the CDWG bag in 2003, spent $1.2 million on all aspects of FOSE in 2003. This was spent on various at-show promotions to hotel room keys with the Warehouse logo, big bags in two colors and two t-shirts. Visually and in many other ways, MicroWarehouse dominated FOSE in 2003. While amusing in some respects, it was a waste, because while they create massive on-site “buzz”, no one managed or directed it during or after the event. Further, most of the buzz was negative, the result of the sophomoric pranks (see Off-White #21).
I got a personal tour of FOSE 2004 from David Greene (president of PostNewsWeekTech) and Lorenz Hassenstein. I have spent some time with Mr Hassenstein since FOSE discussing the event industry in general and FOSE in particular. He has some good ideas for revitalizing FOSE. While I still consider this event something of a dinosaur, Mr Hassenstein may have the skills to build an ecosystem to support the beast.
GovSec, now in its third year, still lacks many of the accoutrements of a major event. It does not have an official show guide or an official publication sponsor, though one publication exhibiting certainly indicated differently. The event is produced by National Trade Productions (NTP), the company that started FOSE in the late 1970s. Bob Harar is still CEO of NTP, and industry veteran Denise Medved heads GovSec. I enjoy the event for a variety of reasons, not the least of which it is focused on security issues, both cyber and physical. Attendance, while not massive, is good. It is not how many people you get, but the quality of each attender.
This is an event put on by an established publication (Government Video), but a weak event nonetheless. I like walking the exhibit hall (when I attend), but only because I enjoy all of the new video technology. I did not attend this year (I was out of town speaking at yet another event), but reports from reliable sources tell me traffic was weak.
Here I am perplexed. While technically I was on a Board of Advisors and a Track Chair, I was not consulted the way I previously have been as an advisor. The event was held at the Reagan Center, but I remain unsure if it was focused on the government buyer for end of FY (it was an August event), or if it was an educational event (four tracks, each offering valuable information), or both.
Mike Smoyer of the eGov Institute was probably experimenting, which is good, but the execution was not on target. Perhaps this was because of the date being too late in the FY to attract many from either the government or industry side.
Associations and SIGs
I would be criminally remiss if I did not mention several of the key groups in our market. AFCEA has events world-wide, and the monthly luncheons for the Bethesda (Maryland) chapter are reportedly great networking opportunities.
AFFIRM, the Association for Federal Information Resources Management, is also a superb monthly venue, and has always been a good place to meet agency IT managers. AFFIRM is a member council of ACT, the American Council for Technology (formerly the Federation of Government Information Processing Councils). ACT is a coalition of national and regional government councils, including the Industry Advisory Council (IAC). If you sell information technology to the government, you have to understand the influence of the IAC. The events produced by ACT and its various member councils are important. The Western Information Technology Council (WITC) for instance, has the 16 Western state CIOs and regional Federal CIOs at a single annual event.
There are also smaller special interest groups (SIGs) that are harder to spot. The PKI Working Group at the National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST) has representatives from many government agencies and industry working on public key infrastructure issues. Another NIST-based group is FISSEA – the Federal Information Systems Security Educators Association. Cyber security is deservedly hot, and FISSEA plays a significant role. These and similar SIGs often represent the absolute key people some companies need to reach.
The list could go on for a long time and I know there are significant omissions, both good and bad.
My bottom line on major events is this: they cost lots of money, and without near-flawless execution, the return on investment is minimal, or worse, not measurable. The reality is there are SIGs that might be better suited for your time and money, but research on your part is necessary to determine where the most influential players in your niche reside, and where you can create bang for your buck. The event producers offer you the venue: it’s up to you to execute.
Another major point of this whole diatribe is there are too many events. If for some reason you do not feel there are too many events, let me suggest you read any of the Federally-focused trade publications. Each produces events, and each also seems to be in league with others producing events. In any given issue of any of the publications, you will see several upcoming events.
In itself, this is not bad, but it adds to the clutter and confusion. Many of the events produced by Federal Computer Week and Government Computer News target the same audience and even have the same speakers.
Similar to the theory of having enough monkeys and enough typewriters, if you have enough money, enough people and enough time, you could attend all the events. Enough already.
If you are not yet confused by the clutter and confusion created by the event phenomena that will not go away, open your email and see how many invitations you received while you were reading this.
Not that I have an opinion.