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Tradeshows and conferences:
Why bother isn’t it all on the ‘net?

By Chris Hills


Why bother with Trade shows and conferences?  Aren’t they just full of salesmen trying to make commission and all the information is on the Internet anyway?  Well, not exactly and it is not a simple as it sounds.  This became obvious as I attended a raft of conferences and trade shows over the last 5 months.


First the obvious stuff:  Yes exhibitors have the dreaded salesmen but many of the staff on these stands are technical people.  Some of the sales people are themselves experienced technical people. I have known many “salesmen” with technical MSc’s and PhD’s who have experience as developers and Team or Project Leaders. Sometimes more so than many delegates who regard themselves as “technical”.  So don’t dismiss the salespeople out of hand. Also there are usually FAE’s and Tech support people on the stands too. If the exhibitor also has a speaking slot, it’s usually done by one of their technical experts who will also be on the stand.  OK, some presentations are by sales people but these tend to be a minority. Conference organisers have learnt their lesson on this one! 


Admittedly, depending on the company, many salesmen have lower technical qualifications and less experience than you but: they will know and understand the things they are selling. On the other hand with some of the smaller companies you get some of the senior designers at the event. In fact at one conference half the stands were maned by some of the world’s leading technical authorities who were also presenting at the conference.


Then of course there are the conference presentations.  Again you do get the odd marketing or product presentation but these now tend to be a rarity as conference organisers shy away from them.  Now it is true that for some conferences you can download the slides afterwards, often without even attending the event.  However there is a world of difference between looking at the slides for a presentation and hearing the presentation being delivered; usually along with a Q&A.   Slides tend to be an aid-memoir not the full story.  Not by a long way…. You can usually read the slides in under 5 minutes but the presentation will be about 40 minutes.  As mentioned most of the presenters will be hanging around the exhibition so you can get a 1-1 with them afterwards. You don’t get that on the Internet, even on webinars.


The Full Story: Now that raises the important and non-obvious point of these gatherings be they a trade show or conference.  As with the comment that the presentation slides are not the full story this is true of many aspects of the event.


The sales people, and of course the FAE’s and others will be able to explain their wares to you.   Obviously they will put a positive spin on it… just as they do on the company web site. However, unlike the web site, you can challenge anything they say and ask for explanations, clarifications or more importantly how the tool/software/method etc works with your specific requirements.  Usually they can demonstrate and you can have a discussion the like you can’t really get on a web forum.


Also at these events there are alternatives. You can get round many of the main competitors in half an hour or so, all without you giving them your contact details.  No web forms to complete with a valid email address etc.  Contrary to common misconceptions most (all?) trade show organisers don’t give the exhibitors a list of attendees with phone numbers and email addresses. So, unless you hand them over they won’t get them unless you want to keep in contact.


However, the real gold at these trade shows and conferences that you can’t get on the Internet is seeing something you weren’t looking for.  Many times I have seen an attendee discover something they had no idea existed as they walked past a stand whilst going to look at something they knew they wanted to see…   Yes it might be on the Internet but if you weren’t looking for it how would you find it?   Search engines are a lot less random than they used to be…


As the proverb says “a change is as good as a rest” the change of environment for a day to a place with lots of new, and probably unknown things, is good for the mind. It sparks ideas.


What comes with all this face-to-face meeting of a lot of new, and known, people is information that is not on the Internet.  It’s called networking! It’s the “what’s happening next” and what is, for want of a better word, industry gossip.   Most of the things you read in the trade press are usually known and discussed well over a month, or four, before to those who frequent trade shows.


On the other hand there is much information that because it is “un-attributable” never makes it past a chat over coffee. It never gets to a magazine, a blog or forum…    Some of my customers get to know about changes in the industry months in advance that can’t for many reasons go into a newsletter.


One final reason for trade shows and conferences…   A person I met at a Conference remembered our conversation and some months later having a conversation with some one else put them in touch with me.  Likewise I have just, this week as I write, put some one who was recommended to talk to me to find something, in touch with two other companies.   Conferences work like LinkedIn wished it could. Except you don’t need to be visible on line.


A couple of years ago at a distributors meeting for a supplier, over dinner, we realised that between the 12 of us at the table, we knew personally or one step removed virtually everyone who had produced all the tools, middleware and useful things for development since the 1970’s. We also knew how to get the tools that and software disappeared over a decade ago, some due to RHoS.   We knew the tools and techniques that are not taught now. The other thing that rapidly became apparent was that most of this information was not on the Internet.  You will only get it by talking to people face to face at events.


So understand that conferences and tradeshows are not what you might think they are.  They are so much more.  It is all the intangibles and things in the ether that make a good tradeshow: it is a boot camp for ideas and connections. Well worth a day and in any case you will come back to work refreshed and revitalised therefore more effective and efficient. 


If you want to go to a Conference and need to persuade a manager draw up a plan.   List the exhibitors you want to look at (and why), list the conference presentations you want to see.  Explain that when you get back you will write a report on it:  the exhibitors and presentations with comments, recommendations and, yes links to web pages.  Also any other information you picked up.   A few pages of your own internal report can be quite useful. It is them you find out that “what everyone knows”  is far less common than you think.


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