Big trade shows like Comdex are fine for reaching hordes of might-be customers. But some business-to-business marketers find private shows better for impressing existing clients.

Once a year Synetics, a $35-million systems integrator, throws its own "tech fair" in the lobby of its Wakefield, Mass., headquarters. Technology originally developed for one customer is displayed for all to view. Some 500 invitations go out to Synetics's advisers and VIP clients (and to employees' families). "My banker always comes," notes CEO Bahar Uttam, "as well as 50 to 60 customers."

This year 21 booths, manned by Synetics's engineers, lined the atrium lobby. One showcased a radio tagging device, used by the Federal Aviation Administration for tracking vehicles, that has warehouse applications.

"In some ways it's better than Comdex, where I have only one booth," says Uttam, who isn't vying for foot traffic. Though customers have come from as far as San Diego, more often the show is a local affair.

Last year Synetics used the event as a springboard to triple business with neighbor Lotus Development. The 1994 fair rekindled the interest of state-government customer Arnie Canner, an information-systems director. "It's a great way for a company to show its product line. I stopped at one booth on document imaging, and they explained it clearly. Now I'm even more interested."

The tech fair complements the few shows Synetics does attend, but it costs less than 1% of the marketing budget. What's more, the fair encourages Synetics engineers to think real-world. The tracking device nabbed "Most Marketable" at the awards banquet capping this year's event.

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Show Time
Private shows are on the rise, according to anecdotal evidence gathered by Trade Show Bureau, a Denver group that estimates that there are now some 1,200 to 3,000 such meetings annually. Other trends it tracks:

Space costs. After runaway inflation in the 1970s and 1980s, the cost of trade-show exhibit space is increasing just 5% a year -- the 1994 average is $10 to $14 per square foot.

Emerging markets. On the increase are shows for minority groups, health-care providers, leisure groups, and the small-office/home-office market. A bureau study found that 44% of companies attending business-to-business shows had fewer than 50 employees. "The Power of Trade Shows," a summary of the 1992 report, is free; call 303-860-7626 to ask for a copy.

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