Computer and tech shows are flat, says TradeshowWeek. The 89 shows in its "Eighth Annual Computer & Electronics Show Report" averaged less than a 1 percent increase in number of exhibiting firms and net square feet in 1999. But 13-year-old Supercomm breaks the pattern in a big way, "growing at an 18 percent to 20 percent clip each year," says its general manager, Jack Chalden. In fact, in the Tradeshow Week 200, a ranking of the 200 largest U.S. trade shows in terms of net square feet of paid exhibit space, Supercomm moved up from 61st place in 1998 to 44th in 1999.

At 465,000 net square feet, Supercomm 2000, held this year from June 4 to 8, maxed out the exhibit space at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta. Nearly 800 exhibitors were at the show, and several hundred more were on the waiting list.

What Is Show Management Doing Right? There's no short answer. The explanation is not simply about being at the right place at the right time during this high-tech tidal wave. Supercomm's success is owed to a willingness to reinvent itself and a commitment to research. The Supercomm staff does a mind-boggling number of online surveys, focus groups, brainstorming sessions, and multiday planning meetings on its own and with its partners to track industry trends and learn what exhibitors and attendees want. "The base document that drove decisions for this year's show had more than 200 suggestions for ideas and new initiatives," says Chalden. "With that volume of changes, the show is refreshed."

Refreshed, Indeed Supercomm today is very different from the event launched in 1988 by the two trade associations that still own it: The Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) and United States Telecom Association (USTA). The original Supercomm was a telephone industry product showcase held three times a year. But as the products and services provided by the associations' members evolved, so did their event. Today, TIA's 1,000 member companies provide a vast array of communications and information technology (IT) products, systems, and services worldwide. USTA's 1,200 member companies oversee local access telephone lines and provide long distance, wireless, Internet, and cable services. And Supercomm is now an annual communications and IT exhibition and conference. "Wireless, satellite, the Internet, traditional telephone communication, the convergence of data and voice--all are part of the mix now," says Chalden.

By 1998, Supercomm had grown so large that it was no longer practical for the associations to manage it. A dedicated staff, now numbering about 14 people, was hired, and Chalden was brought in as general manager. A 30-year veteran of the exhibition industry, Chalden had most recently been executive vice president of the Atlanta Market Center; he has experience in trade show management, marketing, and acquisition. Since then, Chalden and his team have continually revamped every area of the show--exhibit floor, attendee mix, conference program.

Listening Skills Supercomm has an impressive repeat-exhibitor rate. Between 75 percent and 80 percent of its exhibitors return each year, says Susan Krys, director of exhibit sales and marketing. A key reason, according to Krys: "We ask them who they need to see, and try to make sure we're reaching the right buyers." But that's just the beginning.

Like many shows, Supercomm conducts post-show exhibitor surveys; new this year are surveys on its Web site. It also has an exhibitor advisory committee (EAC) that meets three or four times a year.

Less common is a 2.5-day exhibit planning meeting open to all exhibitors. Supercomm holds such a meeting in late August. About 130 people, representing 75 to 100 exhibiting companies, attend. The meeting includes a "we listened" section, as Krys characterizes it, in which participants find out what actions were taken as a result of past EAC and exhibit planning meetings.

At the 1998 meeting (for the 1999 show), "They asked for separate exhibitor and attendee registration, so we did that," says Krys. "And we put exhibitor registration in the connector concourse; it's more central and easier for exhibitors on both sides to reach. We also provided on-site computerized registration, which they recommended.

"Exhibitors felt that the procedure for rebooking promotional opportunities took too long," she continues. "They suggested that we use a procedure similar to on-site space selection. So now we have scheduled appointments, and we do it by priority points, the same as with space selection."

Many exhibitors want to hold their own meetings during the show. Because the conference program uses all the meeting space at the convention center, Supercomm used to refer them to local hotels. But this year, in response to a survey, show management literally built meeting rooms in the Georgia Dome. "The rooms sold well," says Krys. "We did this as a service, but now it's also a source of revenue."

The exhibit planning meeting has several components in addition to "we listened." There's a mini trade show with local vendors--caterers, restaurants, destination management companies--that "gives exhibitors a jump start in their event planning," says Krys. And there are roundtable discussions on subjects such as training booth personnel, generating booth traffic, and tracking sales leads. This year there was also a seminar by Susan Friedmann, who bills herself as the Trade Show Coach. "We got great feedback on that," says Krys.

Even though exhibitor renewals are strong, there are still many new companies--just over 200 this year. And starting this year, newcomers got special care. "We heard from some new exhibitors that Supercomm is so big it's overwhelming," Krys explains. "They get tons of information. There's a public relations manual, a marketing manual, a service kit with operations information."

Krys laughs as she tells how Supercomm responded: by producing yet another manual. This one, for first-time exhibitors, provides a condensed list of critical information, such as key contacts, deadlines, rules and regulations exhibitors often overlook, and free or low-cost promotional opportunities at the show. There's also a glossary of trade show terms and--of course--a survey asking exhibitors' opinion of the manual. "We're getting wonderful positive feedback," says Krys.

Into the Vertical Zone Over the years, there's been a change on the exhibit floor that helps both exhibitors and attendees: the creation of product-focused areas. The first, in 1995, were for fiber optics and wireless technology. "They were the hot technologies then," says Krys. "We wanted to help exhibitors be cohesive and show that we were making these technologies a destination point for attendees."

The early focused areas were merely pavilions--a few booths grouped together. Supercomm 2000, in contrast, had four enormous "zones"--enterprise communications, carriers/service providers, IT, and wireless and satellite technology. The first IT pavilion was about 5,000 square feet; the IT zone at Supercomm 2000 nearly filled two halls.

Technologies change, and fiber optics is no longer a focused area because it is so common. But even the new zones aren't self-contained. "We try to communicate that a zone is a starting point," says Krys. The technologies can also be found elsewhere in the show.

Zones on the show floor tie in with the ever-sharper vertical targeting of attendees. "Historically, we've been generically focused," says Todd Clark, director of Supercomm marketing. "Now we're looking at bringing in the vertical markets." For the 2000 show, Supercomm developed three specialized campaigns, targeting the enterprise market (corporations, educational institutions, industry, associations); carriers/service providers (competitive local exchange carriers [CLECs], Internet service providers, and application service providers); and the wireless marketplace (including satellite and cellular technologies). IT people are now too broad a group to be targeted separately.

E-Mail Merge Ads targeting the three segments ran in 52 publications and on the publications' Web sites. But the biggest change this year was the addition of e-mail promotion. "Our attendees are sophisticated," says Clark. "E-mail gets to them faster. For us, it's much more economical and reaches more people" than direct mail.

Originally, 18 e-mails were planned. "But we didn't want to spam people," says Clark. "We decided to send nine, and put two messages in each one." Messages promoted, among other things, the Telecom Investor Forum (see sidebar, page 64), a special show supplement in Forbes magazine, the hot new exhibitors, and the keynote speakers; several e-mails also included a downloadable free pass.

The first e-mail, in December, went to the Super Circle, people who have attended two consecutive Supercomms and thus receive benefits such as early registration, early housing reservations, and VIP seating at keynote addresses. Broadcast e-mail began in February and followed every two weeks. Recipients could click on a link in the e-mail and go directly to the Web site to register.

For the 1999 show, 25 percent of attendees registered online. As of two months before Supercomm 2000, 78 percent had been done online. "The e-mail campaign definitely contributed to the increase," says Clark. Supercomm 2000 expected about 50,000 registrants, including both attendees and exhibitors.

Direct mail was not dropped, however; Clark anticipated sending more than 3 million promotional and collateral pieces between late November and show time, including customized, vertically focused preshow planners that directed attendees to relevant exhibit areas and conference sessions.

Clark works closely with Stackig, a full-service agency that has been involved with Supercomm since the original show in developing the advertising, marketing, and public relations materials, and producing the official show directory. Because Stackig works almost exclusively with tech companies, "they provide the technical view of what's happening," he says.

Program Notes The conference program is another critical element in keeping a tech show like Supercomm fresh, building the show's credibility, and pulling in desired attendees. A major leap forward occurred five years ago, when TIA and USTA partnered with the International Engineering Consortium (IEC), which provides educational programs for industry and universities. "We increased the focus on the conference program and on improving the quality of the keynotes and the plenary sessions," says IEC Managing Director Roger Plummer. Today, Supercomm's conference program has more than 240 sessions with nearly 800 speakers. Free programs include plenary sessions, industry updates, and keynote speeches. Paid programming includes sessions by IEC and the International Communications Association, as well as Supercomm's two-year-old Global Telecom Market Forum.

Some 80 percent of registrants attend only the free programs, says Plummer, calling that "typical." So it's the free programming, he says, that "creates the aura, sets the tone." At Supercomm 2000, keynoters included John D. Zeglis, president of AT&T and chairman & CEO of the AT&T Wireless Group; Edward J. Zander, president and COO of Sun Microsystems; and Robert W. Lucky, corporate vice president of Telcordia Technologies and chairman of the FCC Technical Advisory Committee.

Because the plenary panels in particular draw a large audience, it's important to "complement the experience the person has walking the show floor," says Plummer. Adding to what the Supercomm people have been saying, he goes on: "We've recently tried to bring a more vertical focus to the program. For example, if people are interested in wireless, why not carve wireless out?

"To decide what we'll do next, we look at what's on the show floor," says Plummer. "We're also diligent about collecting feedback at the sessions. And we do surveys of our own all year for the programs that IEC runs, so we have the benefit of our own experience."

There are also conference planning sessions, which are held about nine months before the show and could last four days. "We bring in mid- to senior-level executives from information and technology companies," says Plummer. "The industry itself decides what the key issues are, and we are a staff to them. IEC is about the needs of Supercomm."

And Supercomm is about the evolving needs of its exhibitors and attendees.

When Supercomm analyzed its attendee demographics a few years back, an interesting fact came to the surface, which triggered an idea, which became a new event at Supercomm: the Telecom Investor Forum.

"Many companies looking for capital or looking to be bought come to Supercomm because they know that's where the action is. It's high profile," says Supercomm general manager Jack Chalden. "But we didn't realize that 1,500 financial professionals attended the show. Our attendee demographics showed us that."

In other words, the people who had money were in the same place as the people who needed money. "We decided to create an event that would serve their needs," says Chalden. And so the Telecom Investor Forum was launched at Supercomm '99.

At the Forum, selected private and public telecommunications companies have 20 minutes each to present their case. Their audience includes institutional investment executives, venture capitalists, analysts, and the financial press. Presentations take place on three consecutive mornings, leaving the afternoons free for follow-up meetings and attending the exhibits. "People can go onto the show floor and actually see the products" that the presenting companies described, says Chalden.

At Supercomm 2000, 54 companies had the opportunity to take the floor. "When we select the companies, we try to provide a mix," says Chalden. "We ask industry analysts and our research partners [to identify] the hottest companies. The list changes up to the last minute; we hold back a few slots to be sure we have the freshest of the fresh. These are the companies that within the next year or two could become a Cisco."

What Have You Done for Me Lately? The mantra of Supercomm: adaptability. Here are some of the changes introduced in the past two years alone: * First-time exhibitor manuals

* E-mail meeting promotion

* New Web site features including an interactive floor plan, an itinerary planner, and exhibitor descriptions (beyond a listing)

* Telecom Investors Forum

* Web-based post-show exhibitor surveys

* Separate exhibitor and attendee registration

* On-site, computerized registration

* A new system for rebooking promotional opportunities that is similar to the booth space selection process

* Additional meeting space built for exhibitors rather than sending them to local hotels for their events.

A Giant Suggestion Box The constant reshaping of Supercomm is guided by what might be called the mother of all suggestion boxes--a document impressively titled "Consolidated Debriefing/Initiative Summary." It is "a living document to which we add responses and suggestions that surface as the year progresses," says Supercomm general manager Jack Chalden.

Among the sources feeding into the report:

lThe boards of the Telecommunications Industry Association and United States Telecom Association, the two associations that own the show. The boards meet three or four times a year to discuss and evaluate the show.

lFocus groups. These can be manufacturers or service providers.

lThe exhibitor advisory committee

lHard copy and electronic surveys to attendees and exhibitors

lOfficial debriefing sessions, within six weeks after the show, conducted by all the major players, including the owner associations, Supercomm staff, and program developers.

The next step is to code each suggestion or problem to indicate (1) correct/implement for next show; (2) requires more time/resources--implement for future show; (3) good idea--requires further study to determine feasibility; or (4) cannot consider due to reasons provided.

Chalden says, "That is nothing new in the spectrum of show production except that, I believe, it is more comprehensive and proactive than many event organizations choose to undertake."

In other words, show management listens.