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Perspective: The death of the tech trade show

With Comdex on the horizon, industry watcher Jon Oltsik explains why the era of the gala tech confab and other industry boondoggles is fast fading--and why IT executives won't miss it in the least.

I was in New York City while Internet World was at the Javits Center earlier this month, so I decided to stop in for an impromptu visit.

Talk about a ghost town!

Unlike past tech trade shows, which took up the top and part of the bottom floors of this cavernous building, Internet World 2002 filled less than half the upper section of the convention center. While the likes of America Online, Computer Associates, Microsoft and Sprint rented floor space, many Internet stars like Cisco Systems, Akamai, IBM, VeriSign and Sun Microsystems were no-shows.

Sad as it was to see, I had to wonder why anyone would still attend Internet World 2002. There was nothing of any substance to convince IT managers to send their staff. Why would companies struggling to make their revenue and earnings numbers spend a dime on this show? I'd ask the same question to a company with a horde of cash like Microsoft.

A few years ago, trade shows did serve a useful purpose. People attended to catch up on the latest technologies and speak with industry experts. Vendors used the spotlight to announce products, talk to prospects, schmooze potential partners and spy on the competition.

The trade-show industry glamorized the whole experience by picking sexy venues, promoting superstar keynote speakers and creating "best of show"-type awards. These events were the place to be. Anyone who was anyone in the industry would attend. Industry executives would say the same thing: "We don't get much out of the show, but you just have to be there."

Perhaps the ultimate irony is that after all those networking, e-business and cyberevents, the Internet itself was the greatest contributor to the death of trade shows.

So what changed?

Customers no longer get all "geeked up" about who has the fastest box. Who cares if Juniper Networks is faster than Cisco or vice versa? The real question is which vendor can help increase my business and cut costs? You can't learn the answer to that question at the Vegas Hilton.

The second trade-show killer was the economy. Although many IT shops stopped sending their people to trade shows a few years ago, vendors continued the charade for a few years more. But as earnings pressures mounted, managements quickly realized they were spending tens of thousands of dollars so their employees could get drunk three nights in a row.

Perhaps the ultimate irony is that after all those networking, e-business and cyberevents, the Internet itself has been the greatest contributor to the death of tech trade shows.

Customers and vendors no longer need to travel to New York, Atlanta or Las Vegas to see the latest technology, get their questions answered or check out the competition. It's all right there on the World Wide Web for everyone to see. Simply open a browser and consider your desktop Comdex 2002.

Managements quickly realized they were spending tens of thousands of dollars so their employees could get drunk three nights in a row.

Adios, industry boondoggles
Trade shows aren't the only technology industry boondoggle that is either dead or dying. Don't expect technology companies to sponsor many big-ticket customer events either. I'm talking about those old-boy network trips to the Super Bowl, Masters or Final Four, where rich companies like Accenture, EMC and SAP would wine and dine customers and prospects for days on end.

These sorts of events and their associated menu of 12-year old scotch, multiple rounds of golf and expensive cigars cost technology companies millions of dollars each year. The expense was somehow justified as a way to build relationships with customers and close business deals.

It's almost 2003 and you can consider these expensive, sexist events dead and buried. Why? The recession and its impact on corporate profits is an obvious answer. The truth is that these events long ago lost their effectiveness because many companies now consider them a conflict of interest and ban their executives from attending.

The death of trade shows and big-ticket customer boondoggles marks a sales and marketing transition for the technology industry. Customers aren't wowed by brainpower, glamour or deep pockets anymore. They see products and services as marginally differentiated commodities and demand that technology vendors engage with them in meaningful dialogue about trends, business pressures and operational challenges.

Customers' time is precious, and they have no more time to party with us.