Are Trade Shows any good?

29 March 2017

This month, thousands of people will flock to Cloud Expo, which has conjoined with Cloud Security Expo, Big Data Expo, Data Centre World and Smart IoT Expo.  It’s at the Excel in Docklands.

For many years, I have attended as an exhibitor.   As a supplier, it’s not a cheap affair.  Companies can pay anywhere between £1,000 and £100,000 for a stand and the associated paraphernalia.   The aim, obviously, being to attract new clients and prospects and convert the conversations into ongoing revenues that justify the spend.  It rarely does.

This month I am attending as a consultant/buyer, to assess the marketplace for a range of suppliers and technologies on behalf of enquiring clients.  It’s given me a new perspective on this sort of show which is making me question whether these shows have a future.

I live on the South Coast, and travelling to London costs me around £90.  Once in Waterloo, I need to get to Docklands – door to door it takes around 2.5 hours.  With lunch and other sundries, we are looking at a cost to my business of 5 hours return travel and over £100 before I’ve arrived.  And as an experienced guy, I don’t really see this as a “nice day out” – it’s a ball ache.

Once arrived, the format is such that I’m given a list of exhibitors and a map, and expected to trawl up and down the rows and aisles assessing supplier capabilities from the information on their stand.  However, the visual appeal of a company’s stand is an indication of the breadth of their marketing budget and creative design skills, rather than their ability to provide an IT or Telecoms service.

I have seen some truly cringeworthy marketing tricks deployed in my time.  The worst was employing a handful of leotard clad young contortionists bending themselves into interesting shapes to attract the eye of passing middle aged men.  Truly awful.

Let’s hypothesise that I become drawn in to one of the stands.  Immediately the marketing execs scan my badge so they can justify their jobs by collecting another “lead”.   No-one has even asked what I want yet?  All I have succeeded in doing is being added to a spam list for that company to clutter my junk mail folder for years to come.  I’m fascinated whether GDPR sees this flash of infrared as “consent” – that’s probably another blog.

I’m ushered towards a waiting sales executive to review my needs.

“I’m just exploring what’s available in the….”.  I’ve lost them there.  Sales guys are not complex beasts, and would only really be listening if I’d started a conversation with “I’m looking to spend £1m next week.”.  This must be the nub of the problem here.  Sales guys want to talk to people ready to spend; Marketing people generally can’t get into any detail on what a business does; clients want to stay abreast of market developments.  The mixed agendas don’t work.

So, I spend a few minutes burning irrelevant oxygen, gather up a few stress balls, and move on thoroughly unsatisfied to the next identical interaction.  Repeat to fade.  This is a trade show.

It’s the 21st century.  Supplier marketing budgets are tight.  Client travel budgets are tight.  Everyone’s busy.  Can we all not just agree that this doesn’t work anymore?  At every general trade show I’ve exhibited at in the past few years, we conclude that clients are not turning up, we spend too long being sold to by other suppliers on our stand, it’s a waste of money etc.

Clients want to find information on technology and suppliers at their convenience, at no cost of time or travel to them, quickly and easily.  Traipsing up to a shed in Docklands to be visually assaulted by contortionists is not that.  Admittedly, it’s a good way to get a view of how big a supplier set is, but only actually shows those who are willing to gamble the budget to be noticed – many more excellent suppliers don’t have the budget or time to be there – they are too busy looking after their clients!

Events where the content is topical and relevant, and targeted to the audience, work.  Events where the time is focussed (1hr or less), information is focused and accessible (webinars are great), and the presenters knowledgeable and engaged, work.  Mass appeal, volume based, information flows just serve to fluff the egos of the supplier’s management who want to be seen in the industry by their peers as successful, because the only people who really care about the size of your stand at an Expo are your peers, who can suffer stand-envy.  Small man syndrome is a real thing.

I’m making no secret of my intentions to overcome these challenges with our marketplace.   I’m happy to shed-traipse on behalf of my clients, mainly because I’m using it as an excuse to see a few mates and get some freebies for the kids.  But information I glean will be structured, balanced, impartial and uploaded to a database for my clients to access without leaving their desk.  If you want me to grab you a branded pack of mints, while you do your real job, just give me a call.

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