What to Look for in Trade Shows

ClickZ has hosted a number of fine conferences. (You really must go to Web Marketing Nuts & Bolts next month.)

But the harsh truth is that the conference business is undergoing a shakeout. “Nice” events are out, “should” events are out, and “gotta go” events are getting serious scrutiny. Even when you go, you’re not going the way you did before or with as many people. Recessions just aren’t healthy for corporations and other living things.

“Trade shows are the most expensive marketing tool all companies buy,” said Mike Martin of 21stCentury Vox Communications in Columbia, MO, who also sponsors the Pixie Awards and runs a show directory. “Just attending can cost $1,500, plus meals and travel and hotel. Then exhibits can run $4,500 to $100,000.” (And if you’re exhibiting you have to throw a party, right?)

Given all that, wouldn’t it be great to have a guide to suggest where you should go? That’s what Martin wants to be, and he started his own free newsletter six months ago to share show reviews. He is starting with his own area of expertise — new media — but he already has more than 4,000 subscribers. When I called he had some sound advice that should apply to all your trade-show deliberations.

“The trade-show industry has not been held to the scrutiny of other industries,” he said, but that is now changing. “People are trying to focus on shows with good word of mouth.”

So what gets good word of mouth from Mike Martin? “The shows I like personally are run by individuals,” he said. (Hear that, Andy?) The best shows also need exquisite timing. Ziff-Davis’s Yahoo Internet Life Online Film Festival “hit the thing perfectly,” despite its corporate sponsorship.

Why are the entrepreneurial shows better buys than corporate shows? Why were Alan Meckler’s Internet World shows better than Penton Media’s? “I think that has to do with the attention the proprietors pay to the shows. They’re constantly there, taking care of the little issues that make a show successful,” he said.

While trade shows can be wildly profitable, in other words, they become a great value only when there’s passion behind them, according to Martin. “The business is a feel business.” Small shows, however, don’t show big profits. Most entrepreneurs see their biggest profits from events when they’re sold. The difference between satisfaction and sufferance, Martin speculates, is the profit made by their corporate parent.

What happens when profits disappear? When Thomas Kemp’s Penton Media bought Meckler’s Internet World franchise, he noted that attendees and exhibitors pay upfront, and if they don’t show up, you don’t give the money back. Corporate-show sponsors have large sales forces that can be cut, and they can reduce space commitments when necessary, but the safety net is limited.

So what should you do? Martin offered some good advice:

  • Look for reviews, like Martin’s, that give you a flavor of what you may be buying.

  • Ask around within your industry, to see which events have real “buzz,” before agreeing to attend.
  • Events are most valuable when an industry is just being born. The O’Reilly Peer-to-Peer Conference sold out despite the industry shakeout.

I’ve got one more piece of advice. Try to be a speaker.

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