As an international exhibition company, we regularly hold focus groups and advisory panel discussions. Recently, we met with a group of vice presidents of sales and marketing from some of the nation's largest and most prestigious companies. Their main message: They need to do more with less, cut costs, and stretch their programs to include more shows, more markets, and more geographic regions.

In the future, more companies will use research to refine their trade-show efforts and to identify which shows make sense for them. They'll ask questions such as: Who's really attending this show? or, Is this a market I should pitch my market or services to? Along those lines, there will be a rise in private shows. Some companies, like IBM, are now referring to their programs as a series of "events," instead of trade shows. They may link with a major show, or they may create their own events.

These companies are convinced of the advantages offered by shows. After all, people still want to touch the product, they want demonstrations, and they want to talk to the experts one-on-one.

But it's not as much about the show itself as it is about the marketing environment. The term "exhibit" is becoming almost obsolete. "Marketing or sales environment" is a much better term.

The exhibits will evolve as well. Our company is now using designers from other disciplines--theater set designers, lighting designers, and sound engineers--to add new thinking to the exhibit design process. In the future, we might even include behavioral scientists who know how people interact with others or with machines, such as touch-screen video kiosks. You will also see more automated information machines as people seek to simplify and to control the types of information they want.

Attendees at trade shows of the future might enter all their preferences into a system when they register: the specific products or services for which they are looking, or how important price is to them. These preferences could be loaded into a card or pendant that sends out a low-frequency radio signal or infrared beam so that, as they walk around the show, each exhibit would morph into an environment with the information and products to meet their needs. In other words, exhibits of the future will be customized for each attendee, as well as each exhibitor.