Perspectives

A trade-show veteran's frustrating search for the greatest show on-line

I have been to so many trade shows that I could single-handedly clothe the nation's poor in logoed T-shirts. Sometimes I go because I need to learn something, but mostly I go in my capacity as an explicator of all things Internet marketing. I am a public speaker, a keynoter, one whose words of wisdom are supposed to keep attendees from demanding refunds for their all-inclusive, VIP, open-sesame conference passes.

So 9 or 10 times a year I battle my industry colleagues for taxicabs in 100-degree heat and 100% humidity. I pay too much for a nonsmoking hotel room so designated an hour after the last guest checked out. I stand in line for 20 minutes to feast on $9 hot dogs because the $12 pizza is all gone.

The last event I attended (I won't name names--I continue to need this group's business) brought home to me just how much I dread these things. My spirits sagged as I walked out onto yet another show floor with its acre upon blister-inducing acre of flashy, prefabricated booths staffed with so-glad-to-meetcha salespeople. My heart grew weary as I slouched past the endless ranks of exhibitors displaying off-topic tie-ins (basketball dunking, silly Star Trek skits, '50s music) and fishbowls full of business cards. My soul darkened as I experienced once more the long lines for bathrooms, longer lines for phones, and the industry-standard ratio of one chair for every 1,000 people.

Then came the presentations: hour after hour of vendor-demo-ing, PowerPoint-slide-showing, VP-of-marketing-hand-waving boredom. Most of the sessions were so poorly attended that my entrance raised the room population by 10%. All heads would turn to look at me because an opening door was more interesting than the pontificator at the podium.

There had to be an alternative, and technoptimist that I am, I thought I might find it on the World Wide Web. For a couple of years I had been hearing a low-level buzz about virtual trade shows, Web sites that either complement or replace traditional events. The idea is to give surfers in the privacy of their offices access to vendors, show-floor news, and even audio and video clips of presentations. It sounded like an attractive option to someone as fed up with reality as I was.

Why Suffer in a Crowd When You Can Suffer at Home?

Despite some early interest, virtual trade shows appear not to have taken off outside the high-tech industry. After searching several Internet directories, I found only two shows not directly related to computers. One site was poor; the other was pitiful.

The sadder of the two was the work of SEMCO Productions, creator of Medtrade, one of the largest real-world trade shows for medical products in North America. The medical industry has been at this convention thing for some time, and I hoped that that expertise would have translated on-line. Indeed, the site's home page informed me that I had reached "the complete on-line trade show for the home-health-care industry," where I could

  • buy or just browse
  • communicate with suppliers
  • find new resources
  • make air and hotel reservations
  • register for the [physical] show
  • get exhibit and show information
  • stay up-to-date on the latest in news and trends...at the moment they happen!

Now, I wasn't visiting a virtual trade show to register for the real thing or to make airline and hotel reservations. I also didn't need exhibit or show information--the whole point was to avoid actually going anywhere. Ah, but the new resources sounded interesting. And when I read that Medtrade's physical shows play host to 1,200 exhibitors, representing 2,500 manufacturers, I figured this was what I had been looking for: the opportunity to work up calluses on my mouse finger instead of on the soles of my feet.

There were a whopping 14 medical-products companies listed. Fourteen. Each company was represented by a page or two of products like the Vibramatic and Multimatic Massage/Percussors from General Physiotherapy Inc. (A few of those pages included links to the companies' own Web sites, but I'm not awarding points for that.) They call this browsing?

If I couldn't browse, maybe I could buy and communicate. As it is my job to have more patience than a glacier, I looked through the 14 vendors to find one I could buy from or communicate with. My favorite was the Graham-Field page, which encouraged me to click on a map of the United States to find the salespeople in my quadrant of the country. There they were, along with their telephone extensions. Not the phone numbers, mind you, just the extensions. Where is it written that you can check your brains at the door when you put information on the Web? If Graham-Field paid SEMCO's posted rate, then it shelled out between $800 and $1,500 for its page. I wonder if anybody reviewed what this listing looked like after cutting the check.

OK, so browsing and buying were out. At least I could read up on the latest news. That section consisted of two white papers. One was subtitled "How would the typical home oxygen concentrator patient thrive under proposed Medicare reimbursement cuts?" Another was about how home-health-care nurses needn't tell their patients they have HIV. Neither article was dated, and neither was news. If the site had listed them as papers delivered at some specific show, I would have taken them at face value. But it promised me "the latest in news and trends...at the moment they happen!" Grrrr.

(When I tried to return to the SEMCO site in April, I discovered it had gone the way of all flesh. A call to the company elicited the fact that SEMCO had contracted out the site's creation and promotion and--deeply unhappy with the results--had finally pulled the thing. The company says it is working on a new trade-show site that it hopes it can be proud of. No debut date has been set for incarnation number two.)

Medtrade is a fine example of a real trade show moving onto the Web in a bad way. It struck me that a company with no physical offering might fare better. The other listing I had found on Yahoo! was for an on-line-only event: the Extraordinary EMC (Electromagnetic Compatibility) Virtual Trade Show, created by a company called Virtual Trade Winds. Upon entering the site I experienced a momentary surge of hope: EMC had worked hard to emulate the geography of a traditional trade show, and that boded well for its content. I started my journey in the Exhibition Hall, where vendors ordinarily congregate--and sure enough, courtesy of a drop-down menu, there they were. All 11 of them. Sigh.

EMC's constituents sell microwave equipment, power amplifiers, antennas, capacitors, connectors, and other related items. Each exhibitor had a "booth" (a few pages hosted on Virtual Trade Winds' server) with product pictures and information and lots of links to the company's own Web site. It was pretty much what you'd find if you roamed the aisles at a regular trade show, minus the free key chains and hourly demos. But with so few exhibitors present, the experience was like attending a trade show in your neighbor's garage.

Disappointed with the informational pickings, I decided to seek out a little companionship. So I sauntered over to the Coffee Shop, hoping for an elbow-rubbing chat room. All I found was a form requesting that I divulge my experience and affiliations, along with the already-filled-out forms of those who had come before me. Not real convivial.

Since that was a bust, I wandered over to the Conference Room, where visitors are invited to ask questions or post responses to existing questions. Not a schmooze-fest, exactly, but at least it offered the promise of some interactivity. What I discovered were 16 messages sent during the past year. It was like finding a pile of While You Were Out notes in an abandoned building. It's hard to strike up a conversation in an empty room.

Not Yet the Sum of Its Parts

It was clear from what I had seen thus far that most professionals would be stuck doing the conference-center shuffle for some time to come. But there was one industry in which I thought time future might be found in time present: my own field of information technology. Here, at least, both hosts and attendees should have the vision to understand what is possible on the Web and the expertise to make the possible real.

It turns out that quite a few real-world technology shows have on-line components, which are updated during the course of the event and later archived. Once again using Yahoo! as my point of origin, I set off on a whistle-stop tour of those sites. And even if I couldn't smell the greasepaint, I could occasionally hear the roar of the crowd (via streaming audio) and generally pick up a great deal of useful information.

The first thing I discovered was that it doesn't require a whole Web site to deliver trade-show highlights. If I hadn't been the master of ceremonies at Thunder Lizard Productions' real-life Web Advertising '98 conference in New York City in February, I could still have learned a lot by reading the Online Advertising Discussion List. Tenagra Corp.'s Richard Hoy, who is the list's moderator, published 10 reports from the conference floor, filled with valuable insights from the speakers glossed with Hoy's own considerable experience. I had heard advertising maven David Yoder speak in New York, but it was Hoy's filings that put his speech into perspective for me.

Pundit duties had also dictated that I show my face at Internet World in New York City last December, but had I been unable to attend, I could have enjoyed some of the best bits from home. Relaxing in my Santa Barbara office a month later, I called upon the magic of streaming video to experience once more John Sculley's keynote address, his PowerPoint presentation, and even a multimedia demo of his products. Unlike Medtrade, the Internet World site did justice to the real show's scope, making it easy to find information--including product listings and company-site links--on all 600 or so exhibitors. And because the site included speaker biographies, I was able to keep tabs on Jill Ellsworth, who has now written nine books about the Internet to my three. (Look out, Jill, I'm cranking up the word processor again.)

Several other sites conveyed not just information (like presentations and product announcements) but also some of the flavor of the real events. On the Web site for the real-life JavaOne conference, for example, attendees voted on their favorite keynoters, described their Java development and purchasing activities, and gave their overall impressions of the show. Even without attending JavaOne in person, I picked up on an unexpected swell of support for Microsoft from comments like "I think all the attacks on Microsoft and Bill Gates are infantile and counterproductive to the future of Java. It would be much better to enlist Gates as a supporter."

Comdex, no surprise, took things even further. I particularly enjoyed the Webcasts of an irreverent reporter with a couple of digital cameras, who cruised the convention floor courtesy of Digital Equipment and ZDNet. His coverage included interviews with everyone from industry leaders like Eric Hippeau, CEO of Ziff-Davis, to the no-doubt technically savvy models draped over the adult-entertainment booths. Everyone got the same kinds of insightful questions: How do I get rid of the in-box in Windows 95? Who is your favorite Spice Girl? (This is an example of the on-line version reflecting favorably on the physical show. I've called Comdex many things in the past, but "funny" isn't one of them.)

Still, Something's Missing

Good as these sites are, they still lack something immensely important: the bumping-into factor. "Oh, hello. There's no business reason for us to eat our $9 hot dogs together, but I remember you from last year, and what did you think of that keynote speech?" What follows is an exchange of ideas, and that, after all, is how memes propagate. Even better are the introductions. "Oh, look! There's Melanie. Do you know her? You really should. Melanie! Come here and meet Rob. I was just telling him about your business in Plano. Have a seat." That is how your circle of contacts grows. Oddly enough, it's called networking.

The last day at Internet World terra firma, I got an E-mail from Kristin Zhivago, who writes a top-notch newsletter called Marketing Technology. She was too tied up to cruise the entire exhibit-hall floor, and she needed to borrow my eyes. "I wanted to go look at the Microsoft developers' area and the Sun/Java developers' zone to see how they compare from a marketing perspective," she wrote me. "They're right next to each other. Can you take a look?"

My report back was short and sweet: Sun had the buzz, Microsoft had the business. The characters from Silicon Valley offered the flashiest presentations, had the coolest young technologists in their audience, and were handing out T-shirts like there was no tomorrow. The residents of Redmond were giving straight product demos, had attracted the bulk of the suit-and-tie crowd, and were handing out software CDs like there was no tomorrow.

Maybe Kristin could have come to the same conclusions by reading on-line dispatches from ground-level reporters. Maybe if she had clicked around long enough, she would have found the live pictures from the show floor. But there's something about having all five senses at play that cannot yet be replicated over a computer screen.

If your goals in attending a trade show are to learn the latest and get those product specifications, you might be able to save a few thousand dollars by doing it on-line. But if you want to rub shoulders with your peers, expand your personal network, size up the character of the industry, or pick up a free T-shirt, then unplug the modem, break out the comfortable shoes, and pack the Pepto-Bismol. I'll see you there.

Jim Sterne is an international Web marketing consultant and author of World Wide Web Marketing and Customer Service on the Internet, published by John Wiley and Sons, and What Makes People Click: Advertising on the Web, published by Que.


THE SITES

Note: The Web is a transient animal, and any or all of these sites may have changed substantially or disappeared entirely by the time you read this.