Several months ago I teamed up with Doug Fox of EventWeb to deliver a joint session at the midyear educational conference of the International Association for Exposition Management in Chicago. The feedback from attendees at that session was so overwhelming that I thought I should write about it here.

The controversial point we started with, and the topic that kept the audience in their seats well past ending time, is that show organizers need to reverse their thinking about the relationship between a show and its Web site. Right now, probably every show organizer in the world believes that its Web site is simply an adjunct to the show. But I argue that the show is simply an adjunct to the Web site. In other words, the Web site represents the real value, and should be the primary recipient of our attention and business efforts. The show itself will eventually drop to secondary importance.

Totally wacko, eh? Perhaps, but hear me out.

First, let me state my position regarding the true job function of association show organizers: These managers are not really in the event planning business, but rather, they're in the audience-capturing business. In other words, the only reason to hold a show at all is because it draws an audience. And that audience, directly or indirectly, pays for the cost of the show plus some profit margin. But the important point here is that it's the audience that matters, not the show. The show is only one means of capturing that audience.

The Internet gives us another method. And in some respects, it's far more effective. First, it is available around the clock. Second, it's accessible from anywhere in the world via a computer and a phone line. Third, it's infinitely deep and wide, i.e., it's not limited by available floor space or hotel rooms. And finally, it's much cheaper to deliver content on the Internet than it is to do so at a show.

We should be using the Web as our primary tool for building and maintaining our communities--and repositioning the actual show as a periodic get-together for the community we've already nurtured online. Because our goal is to create communities of interest, we need to shift our attention to the Internet's long-term community-building potential--and the competitive necessity of using these new technologies to preserve our current positions.

Moreover, there is a rapidly growing practice in the business world of using the Web for research on products, services, and, of course, trade shows. Many show attendees now research shows on the Web and make their attendance decisions based on what they see.

That means your audience is looking you up online and deciding on your show (in competition with every other show Web site) long before you ever get to impress them at the convention center. If you've spent the previous year attracting that audience to your Web site and drawing them into your community, then getting them to your show should be easy.

The unavoidable implication of these trends is, I believe, that show organizers need to focus on their Web sites as their primary audience-building tools--and, of course, learn to make money from the online audience! The show itself becomes the one-time celebration and physical gathering point for the community that your Web site has already built, and profited from, throughout the year.

Kevin McDermott recently launched Anubis Consulting, a strategic planning consultancy dedicated to helping companies in the event industry understand the business opportunities provided by new technologies. He can be reached at kevinmcd@anubis.com