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“Off-White Paper” #3 Events – To Show or Not to Show

Face-to-face works for selling. No one can argue with this.

But, when faced (no pun intended) with ever dwindling marketing budgets (who are the morons who don’t invest in marketing, anyway?), and the ever rising costs of participating in trade shows, MarComs (marketing communication managers) have hard choices to make.

Trade shows cost money for the space, the booth, the pre/at/post show marketing, hotels, people (man hours away from other activities), training booth personnel (if you’re going to do this right), and much more.

And trade shows offer: what percentage of your target market? What guarantee that you’ll have the right people find your booth in the midst of 400-500 other boothes (of thousands of boothes, if you are considering exhibiting at Comdex).

Let’s take FOSE. Here is an event which emerged from a long war with several other (now mostly defunct) events (FCC, Federal ADP, GCN Expo, etc) to dominate the government/Washington spring timeframe. The published attendance numbers when FOSE was owned by National Trade Productions (NTP) were over 70,000. It doesn’t matter whether or not you believe these numbers, because those of us who were there experienced crowded aisles, long registration lines (for those silly enough not to pre-regesiter), and relatively happy exhibitors. Before NTP sold the event, they attempted to re-focus (or de-focus, depending on your point of view) the event into “America’s Computer Show”, not a government event.

Mistake #1. Cahners/Reed exacerbated the problem by marketing FOSE like their other major event, the Auto Show. Well, boys and girls: DC ain’t Detroit and Computers aren’t cars (though they are commodities), and the attendance started to drop.

To PNBIs (Post Newsweek Business Information, the new owner) credit, the event is focused exclusively on government once again. But the rising cost of the space coupled with the lower attendance make it a difficult option for many vendors. For most, money is better spent at smaller, more focused events, like the table-top events produced by the Federal Business Council and IT Direct. For others, spending more money on space and direct mail makes more sense.

With government purchasing becoming more decentralizied, spending a large portion of your budget on one event in one location (even Washington), is no longer a viable option.

And look at the new flies in the ointment. Federal Computer Week is launching a spring event in 1999, GovTech, three weeks after FOSE (see “Off-White” 3.1), targeting virtually the same vendors and going after the same attenders. And there are rumors about them adopting the marketing of the shrinking AFCEA events, especially TechNet.

And last summer, eGov, produced by IT Direct and the omnipresent Israel Feldman, attracted 10,000 government employees in the now vacant summer slot (which used to be owned by NTP with FedMicro, a story for another time).

CEOs generlly don’t understand marketing (which is why it almost always ends up subordinate to sales). But they (CEOs) seem to be under the spell of the “gotta be at this event in a big way” bug when they see certain competitors at allegedly significant events. These “marketing ephanies” often occur after a meal with the trade show prodcuers, and are the bane of Marcoms everywhere.

In my estimation, events need to be focused to be of value. But if they are too focused, say on a particular technology, they becomes “sunset” events. When the technology is no longer cutting edge, the lights go out on the show.

SIGCAT, the Special Interest Group for CD Rom Applications & Technologies) hosts an annual event that attracts 2,000+ key people in CD Rom based technologies, especially government people. This has been going on since the mid 1980s, and there has been a steady migration to and expansion of the technology. But it is focused. FedUnix (anyone remember this show?) was focused on the government use of Unix, and the exhibitors and attenders alike were pleased with the event precisely because of the focus. But the technology went South, and the show died.

Comdex (which has had defections) and FOSE (which has had some defections), may or may not be passe. But I believe that for FOSE (or any event) to continue and grow, it needs to focus on more than just “government” (“Uh, we’re here to facilitate the implementation of beneficial technologies designed to bring service to the citizens”…See “Off-White” paper on WPI). There has to be some true value add for both the exhibitor and the attender if shows of this size can truly justify themselves to the MarComs who have so little money and so much to do.

And with eGov and GovTech entering the fray, vendors (and their respective MarComs) will have more difficult decisions to make.

Let’s make a checklist for the important things to look for when selecting an event, and I’ll post your comments.

Copyright 1998, Amtower & Company