If you've ever wondered what attendees really think of your event, read this Q&A with Michael Roney and Michael Utvich, authors of the Guerrilla Guide to High-Tech Trade Shows.They write a monthly column on high-tech conventions and conferences for Upside magazine, www.upside.com. For more insights into how to "save time, money, and sanity at computer trade events," visit http://guerrilla-guide.com.
TM: You've said the subtext of your book is a reaction to Comdex. What's the problem with these mega-events? And why do people keep coming back?
Michael Utvich: The fundamental point of the book is the overload of hype and insincerity at the shows. If you were really going to a show to learn something of distinct value, that would be one thing. But if you walk in there without a plan for what you really want to accomplish, sooner or later your butt ends up in a seat in front of one of these giant videowalls, wearing a one-dollar hat.
Michael Roney: It's like an old-time medicine show.
Utvich: The real trick for exhibitors--this is what they believe, anyway--is to come up with some high-mindshare event like boxing. I saw Joe Frazier at Comdex one year. And mountain climbing! I've seen it! A fake mountain built into the booth, and guides leading attendees up the mountainside and taking pictures. I'm not kidding!
Roney: I've seen the People's Republic of China table-tennis team at a booth. As you can see, we look at all this with a jaundiced eye. What's really of value to me at the typical high-techare the networking opportunities. I don't go to see product, and it's not to keep up with what's new. I can do that by reading the trade weeklies; I can see new product anytime I want. It's more like a convenient place to meet up with a lot of people for a few days.
TM: Are there any shows you go to where organizers explicitly recognize the value of networking?
Roney: Yes. The smaller, more focused conferences, as opposed to the 50,000-and-above trade shows, have more serious value. When you get to the point that Comdex has been at for several years, and that Internet World is getting to, all the noise and commotion and crowds and hype just start to bury any real value.
TM: Why is there so much hype at high-tech shows compared to other industries?
Roney: Remember that the business model for a lot of high-tech companies is a lot like the business model for the entertainment industry--they're selling intellectual property in the form of software or hardware, and they often have a six-month window in which to sell it before it becomes obsolete. A lot of the things you could say about the entertainment business you could say about high-tech.
TM: Do you attend corporate shows?
Utvich: I did see part of the Oracle show this year. The in-house shows are really just an attempt to focus customers around a company's products--the world of applications where you can use its products instead of somebody else's. They also serve as a kind of convention for employees. Building employee mindshare is a big deal with those things.
Roney: You have to look at those shows on two different levels. If you're focused on a particular technology, on one level you'll get some pretty deep, quality information. On the other hand, you have to keep in mind that they do have a corporate strategic agenda, and it's going to be one-sided to a certain extent.
TM: Who runs a good conference? What makes it good?
Utvich: Seybold. What makes it good is content. And its shows tend to be very focused on a particular area, and they do it very well. They pick their shots; they don't try to be too big.
Roney: Seybold focuses on the technology. They really try to have real content. It's not just a bunch of vendors flogging their products. There's usually a new technology pavilion that's not sponsored by any particular vendor--it's sponsored by Seybold. They have good training sessions--ecumenical, not focused on any one vendor, easily accessible, with quality instructors, of course.
Utvich: I'd say also the best single show I've ever been to is Siggraph. Not only is it an expo with a conference track, but it actually has a learning track where you can sign up for technical classes and learn computer graphics right there at the show. It incorporates a vital exposition; it has an art component where they show computer graphics art and give awards; and they have this university track where you can buy all the textbooks and videos in the lobby. And then there's the conference--covering industry issues. Really a nice mix--very focused, very intense. You get your money's worth.
TM: What else can conference organizers do to win your seal of approval?
Utvich: See your attendees as customers, not as meat. To all organizers I'd say go to your own show and see for yourself the quality of the experience that a person has going to your show in terms of getting information they're looking for. That's key, because most of them don't care--they just throw the exhibits out there on the floor where people are going to pay for them. All these shows that are really walk-through press releases . . . shows like that are dead.
Roney: Put more events on the show floor. Some shows have panel discussions on the show floor and aren't trying to sell anything. Some have exhibits that aren't sponsored by any one vendor, which show what you can do with the technology--aesthetic, educational exhibits right on the show floor. There's a real value there, and it adds a little to the overall aesthetic of the show, makes it more pleasurable to be there.
Utvich: Most show managers don't see themselves as editors or content providers, and I think that's a big mistake. If you can go to one place and find a lot of information, that's a criterion for a good show. If the organizers just throw you, hapless, into a bunch of exhibits, nine out of ten of which are totally irrelevant to what you're looking for, then you're going to be exhausted by the end of the show, and more importantly not get as much of what you came for. You're just going to burn out. You'll go to the hotel and watch the Creeping Critters special on PBS.
Roney: Expand the focus beyond selling exhibit space to moving forward some sort of qualitative discussion, some educational process. Get off selling a little bit, to a more even-handed discussion of what's going on in the industry.
TM: You've talked a lot about the importance of content. What about creature comforts?
Utvich: Creature comforts are definitely important. Siggraph is still a big show, and I'd never say it's exactly pleasant to be there, but they go a long way toward making it more comfortable, providing facilities where you can relax, with relatively nice places to eat; you can get a massage . . .
Let me point out that Comdex is the closest many people are ever going to come to the Iron Man Triathlon. Think of it as a sporting event. You're walking upward of five miles a day over hard concrete floors, carrying probably 20 pounds of literature. All the food is essentially toxic mixtures of sugar and salt and nitrates. The smart attendee really has to be aware that this is a physical activity. You've got to train for it; you've got to be smart about what you eat, drink a lot of water, don't fill your stomach with junk. And of course there are numerous opportunities after hours to get drunk as a skunk at all the free parties.
TM: Don't the hotels that attendees stay in have an impact on their quality of life, too?
Roney: We're of the opinion that if you're going to a city for a big conference you'll have a better time not staying at one of the big corporate chain hotels that are like airport terminals inside. We recommend smaller, iconoclastic, European-style hotels, which can be found in most major cities.
TM: The folks who handle housing blocks for big conventions are going to love hearing this.
Utvich: One of our favorites in San Francisco is the Trident. It's walking distance to the Moscone. And when you come downstairs to go somewhere, you're right on the street.
Roney: And often you can get better rates at these hotels. They don't have swimming pools or huge health clubs. Generally the service is great and they have a little atmosphere. And you might as well enjoy yourself.
We both think it important that the hotel offer the level of room services you need. The room should be laptop-ready: You should be able to plug in your computer equipment. They should be sensitive to the business traveler. Ideally, stay within walking distance, because under the pressure of a show, getting a cab can be a 15-minute adventure.
TM: Thanks, guys. See you at Comdex.
Michael Roney and Michael Utvich, authors of the Guerrilla Guide to High-Tech Trade Shows, recommend that attendees take at least one evening off from the official party circuit "to seriously disrespect standard tourist itineraries in the search for a truly inspired experience." Here are a few of their tips: * Las Vegas: "Cruise through the cheaply carpeted pits of the Coin Castle (15 E. Fremont St.) or Sassy Sally's Casino (32 E. Fremont St.) and order yourself a drink or two. Here you can observe plenty of cowboy hats and bouffant hairdos. . . . You won't see Wayne Newton in these ragged old rooms, but you may bump into someone who could be his brother."
* Dallas: "West End Marketplace is a converted industrial space that now boasts over 100 retail shops and game arcades. There's some of the usual here, plus much of the unusual, including many vendors offering a variety of Texas chili compounds, local artworks, and interesting memorabilia that is uniquely Texas. Don't miss the Knife Store upstairs."
* San Francisco: "A truly great Gonzo Tour in this most Gonzo of cities is based around North Beach, cultural vortex of coffee houses, the beat generation, and its descendants, followed by a tour through Haight-Ashbury and the western regions of the city."