The trade show has long been dead (in theory)

Trade shows have long existed for reasons that have more to do with politics than quantifiable business value. Factor in expectations, politics, personal interaction--and out-of-office excuses.

Gordon Haff
Gordon Haff is Red Hat's cloud evangelist although the opinions expressed here are strictly his own. He's focused on enterprise IT, especially cloud computing. However, Gordon writes about a wide range of topics whether they relate to the way too many hours he spends traveling or his longtime interest in photography.
Gordon Haff
3 min read

I'll leave speculation about the back story behind Steve Jobs bailing on the upcoming Macworld--and Apple bailing on future ones entirely--to others.

Rather, I'd like to poke a bit further at what this says about the trade show business. ZDNet's Sam Diaz writes:

I hadn't really thought too much about it, but it only makes sense that the Internet's next victim would be the trade show. Think about the outreach tools that companies have at their disposal these days.

Webcasts have become online events where people from around the globe can attend without booking a flight, hotel room, or restaurant reservations. Viral videos are being produced by companies to showcase their products and technologies in real-world environments. Brand names are creating loyal followings via "fan memberships" on social-networking sites such as Facebook. And, increasingly, there are smaller, intimate shows that cater to crowds with specific interests--conferences dealing with social networking, cloud computing, open source, and more.

Those shows reach the audiences they want to reach, and the bank doesn't have to be broken to participate. But what a devastating blow to local economies.

I don't disagree with any of this. Webcasts, viral marketing, and so forth do indeed offer additional, and much lower-cost, ways of reaching out to customers, partners, and developers. And, in Apple's specific case, it doesn't especially strain credulity to at least accept that Macworld is no longer as good a marketing fit as it once was. However, if one takes the broader perspective, I'm not at all sure that this says all that much about the trade show business in general.

That's because the trade show business has always been a bit of a racket. A former boss regularly complained about the money he wasted on trade shows in which he had to participate. And that was more than 10 years ago.

Companies often effectively have to exhibit because it's expected. (Hmm. ACME isn't at the show this year; it must be in trouble.) Participation might also be seen as a cost of doing business with an important partner. (Want Oracle to work with you? Better exhibit at OracleWorld.) There isn't necessarily a quantifiable return on the investment.

Inertia and general politics are other factors. Lots of groups both inside and outside of companies have a strong vested interest in keeping the trade show gravy train going. And that includes, as much as anything, attendees, for whom shows can be as much about getting out of the office for a week as they are genuine business value.

That's not to say that the real-life interaction that happens at these events has no value. Anything but. For me, one of the greatest values of shows is that they offer a convenient focal point for lots of face-to-face discussions, both formal and less so.

In fact, I have this pleasant fantasy that the IT industry could replace its most lumbering shows with get-togethers in nice locales. No need for all the big exhibits at the expensive, antiseptic convention centers. Throw in some unconferencing. (One example somewhat along these lines in Sun Microsystems' CommunityOne. It will be interesting to see how CommunityOne East fares, given that it marks the first time one of these events has been run independently of JavaOne.)

But the reality is that there's a natural tendency toward structure in such things. I'm sure that we'll all have plenty more opportunities to partake of bad convention center food.