Flaps and Tassels

A rambling account of time spent…

When you’ve been to a lot of trade shows you notice the types of people who are coming past. If somebody is carrying a backpack they are usually an assistant sent to check you out. The ones who take decisions have someone to carry their backpack for them.

Shoes are another classic clue. Investment bankers in the US tend to wear a particular kind of loafer, which has leather flaps and tassels on the end of their shoe laces. Flaps and tassels tell you that they’ve come to buy your company.

Sitting on an exhibition stand you get time to watch the flow and wonder what it all means…

So are trade shows really what they’re cracked up to be?

Exhibitors spend an huge amount of time and money on them. Yet the results are almost impossible to evaluate. Most of the visitors coming past waste your time. They don’t buy anything and they’re never going to buy anything. Lonely people who like to talk to salesmen. Be nice to hang a row of car tires on the booth, like they do in fishing boats, to fend off the tire kickers… or just give them something to kick!

Trade show addiction

For companies going to trade shows is almost a forced kind of addiction, because you can’t just go one year and expect that anything is going to happen. It takes three years to get noticed. The first year you are there, people walk past and they don’t even see you. The second year, they may look and it takes the third year for them to actually stop at your stand and come and ask you a question. You have to be part the environment. Unless you are doing something that’s absolutely WOW from the beginning and you’ve spend a huge amount of money advertising it, you are not really going to be seen. It’s amazing how the regulars attending trade shows have already mapped the thing out in their mind and just ignore anything that doesn’t correspond.

at IBC tradeshow
Conrad Preen at IBC tradeshow 2017

Once they know you and you are on their little mental list of things and places to visit, they’ll ask you “So, what’s new?” or “So, what do you guys do?”

What makes people stop at a particular stand? Great products? Hmmm! A comfortable sofa, free coffee, and a pretty receptionist definitely works and occasionally they might just be interested in your product in between personal phone calls.

But once a company starts attending they can’t stop or people think they’ve fallen off the planet! When you go you are part of the furniture, until you don’t go and they think you’ve gone bankrupt. So the trade show industry has got you for the rest of your life.

Length matters!

In the broadcast world I’ve attended IBC in Amsterdam for more years than I care to think about and it’s always 5 days long and it’s actually been cut down from 6 days but it’s still too long.
NAB in the US is only 3 days – short and sweet, and people come there who make decisions, intelligent conversations and fewer backpacks.

The very last day at long trade shows is like tumbleweed in the aisles.. Photo by Jez Arnold

But long or short, the last day it’s like tumbleweed blowing down in the aisles: the only people you see are other exhibitors giving away the leftover freebies, you know, torches, spinners, sandwiches.. you name it. Off-loading their giveaways to everyone else so they don’t carry them home and get told off by their boss.

So.. is it worth it?
The good thing about trade shows is that you collect together all the people in your industry and you do get an idea of what’s going on. That’s one of the useful things. You find more about industry trends in a trade show. You don’t really do much in the way of sales and it’s very hard to attribute pretty much any sale to the show. It’s good to get an idea of what’s happening but do you actually need to go to the expense of a huge exhibition stand in order to find out what’s happening? You might as well shoulder your backpack and go for a walk, take one day there and find out everything you need to know.

There are of course premium add-ons – workshops and seminars. The trade show industry is expert at up-selling. IBC conference for example, tends to gather together people who are talking about the future of the industry which is quite funny because the future of television is bleak and is already giving way to the future of Youtube and and other things like Youtube, but there are still lots of people who firmly believe that if only we could just get the message right,  television is still going to work. That’s really debatable.

old TV advertisement
A recent survey shows that for anyone under 35 television has become more or less irrelevant. Photo by: Nesster

A recent survey shows that for anyone under 35 television has become more or less irrelevant.  People tend to start watching television when they’ve got two children and they’re basically immobile in the evenings. And mostly in countries where the only legal form of entertainment is shopping.
Apart from that, the demographic of television is definitely heading toward the 50s and over which doesn’t say much for its future.

Another source of wry amusement are the standards committees where every manufacturer seeks to promote their own standard and the committee make a standard of many standards to please all the stakeholders. And guess why there are no standards any more… The standards organizations do quite well by charging people a lot of money for copies of their standards, which go out of date a soon as the next (multi)standard comes along. Another self-serving service to the industry.

These days most people already know what they want because they’ve searched on the internet. They’ve already found out everything they need to know and they might just come by to see that you have a human face and maybe to see if the gizmo actually works. But even then there’s no guarantee of that either..

What somebody says to you in a trade show isn’t recorded anywhere and you have no guarantee that it’s actually going to materialize. I’ve even seen demonstrations in trade shows that were almost certainly fake so I wouldn’t rely too much on what you see.

At least on the internet you’ve got some written documentation from the manufacturer which actually states what their promises are. So if the promise isn’t delivered you’ve actually got some evidence.

The only time I bought something from a trade show was when the deal was already decided as to what we wanted. For example for the Olympics we tended to have the meeting to close the deal at the trade show because that’s where the sales staff are most vulnerable because their competitors are just around the corner. They know that in five minutes you’ll be having a meeting with the competition so they really do their best to give you the best possible deal.

NAB Convention Floor Las Vegas
Las Vegas NAB Convention. Photograph by Patty Mooney, Crystal Pyramid Productions, San Diego, California

The social aspect of the trade shows can be nice. But it’s a mixed bag because yes, you’ll meet quite a few people you like but you’ll also meet those people who you don’t like at all. You still have to be polite to them and the trouble is you actually can’t get away either…

So will the trade show survive? Difficult to say. These things have their up and downs but with so many cheaper and effective alternatives via the internet perhaps headed for smaller affairs that are more to the point. And that will probably be a good thing.

Conrad Preen

Conrad Preen is an experienced broadcast system designer. In the past 10 years he is developing connectCAD tool for Vectorworks, a cad plugin for designing audiovisual systems. He he’s attended a good number of the AV industry trade shows as a visitor and he’s been at the exhibitors stands at IBC for years.

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