Do trade shows still make sense?

Let me be clear – I’m one of those people that hates trade shows.  I’m not good at small talk, I hate all the hassle of trade shows, the lines, the crappy gifts, wearing a name tag etc etc.  Indeed I hate them so much that I’ve been predicting their death for years.  Yet as the big consumer electronics (CES) show gets underway in Las Vegas  this week, it’s clear that these trade shows have a role in their industries.  They create a deadline by which companies have to make decisions, they create meeting places where collaboration on future projects start; and they create a showcase for the introduction of products both good and bad.  In short they are a good way of getting people to pull their fingers out and get stuff either done or started.

In general I know the trade show business has been through years of decline.  Apple doesn’t even attend Mac World anymore and once famous shows like COMDEX have vanished.  For those of you who weren’t around for the COMDEX madness, hotel rooms were like gold dust and cab lines in Vegas were routinely over an hour long.  But they did have great parties.  Even without shows like COMDEX there are still plenty of major shows around.  What seems to happen is that someone either evolves the content of the show or the format (or both) to stay in lock step with the way the industries they serve are evolving.  That said it is somewhat inevitable that trade shows will get smaller.  With social media tools now so prevalent, many of use don’t need to attend the show to get the news and feel like we were there.  Indeed the only part we really miss is the networking.  And let’s be honest, not much truly valuable networking takes place at these shows that couldn’t take place elsewhere.

I therefore confidently, without any hesitation whatsoever, formally predict that trade shows will carry on existing.  They’ll just be different from the way they are today.  How’s that for a stunning prediction?  More seriously though I think the really successful shows will be smaller and more focused and their format will evolve in ways it’s hard to imagine today.    COMDEX crashed and burned after it opened itself up to the public.  That turned the show from a must attend event into a must avoid event.  At the same time conferences such as TED and D appear to be flourishing.  This shows that people still crave the content and the connections.  They simply want to consume them in a smaller, more exclusive environment.

Trade shows are by definition, for the trade.  So unless your trade is so big that you really do need 200,000 people to attend your show, then an event that pulls in a small fraction of that number seems destined to be a better route.  Long live the specialist, awfully small trade show, that I’m not invited to.

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