Must the show go on?

Hi-tech events still draw, but bigger is no longer always better.

Hi-tech events still draw, but bigger is no longer always better.

Jim Hasl shocked the hi-tech industry in 1997 when, as IBM's director of worldwide event marketing, he chose not to bring the global technology leader back to Comdex, the hi-tech trade show leader. Hasl, who has since started his own events marketing firm, didn't care that the tech balloon was swelling, and Comdex's attendance was swelling right along with it. "Comdex was not delivering the audience we needed," he says. "It wasn't working for us." Hasl's bold move unwittingly opened people's eyes to the possibility that companies don't need to attend hi-tech events merely because it's expected of them. But now that reality has caught up with the tech industry, and the balloon has long since burst, companies are rethinking how they use hi-tech events to communicate with audiences, from potential customers to analysts and the press. "We feel very strongly that trade shows and events mirror the sectors they serve," says Michael Hughes, associate publisher of Tradeshow Week. "In the IT event marketing world, companies are going with what they know. They aren't taking as many risks." Which means that many companies are cutting back on the number of shows they attend, concentrating instead on smaller or more focused shows with a better-targeted and more qualified audience of attendees and journalists. At today's hi-tech events, less is more. "I'm not hearing that companies need to go to every show out there," says Hasl, who also served as director of event marketing at Hewlett-Packard. "The shows that specialize in thoughtful, focused content are doing well. There's some incredible collaboration going on between PR and event marketing. They complement each other nicely. These events allow companies to meet with many journalists and analysts at once. Companies are much more thoughtful about what they are doing in trying to convey real messages." Going with a plan Gone are the days when companies would just show up with no real strategy, adds Hasl, other than to set up a booth and hand out pens or T-shirts to whomever might wander by. "If you plan it well, you can control the outcome of your presence at a show," says Nancy Neipp, Cisco's director of event marketing. "If you manage the expectations up front, and plan out your time there, you will get the results you want. We have competitors in every sector. Your audience is there because they want to be there. You have a captive audience. And you have to take advantage of that." "The days of being at every single show are over," adds Michael Busselen, chairman of Fleishman-Hillard's tech practice. "Budgets are just too finite, too tight. It's fundamental you show ROI. If all the trade show does is send hundreds of sales people to Las Vegas, then you haven't advanced your agenda. This is an opportunity to meet and influence people in a very short period of time. They are coming to you. These events should be part of your strategy." Hi-tech events are an integral part of any PR strategy, insists Ed Sander, group director for SAP's CRM product marketing. "It's an opportunity to meet audiences and influencers face-to-face. It's also a good chance to see how effective other forms of communication have been throughout the year. "If we have done our job correctly, then (SAP's audiences) will have understood the promises and claims we've made because they have come to us to validate the assumptions they've made about our products," says Sander. "We participate in trade shows and conferences to give a strategic overview. We then participate in specific industry events to talk about our products on a granular level. And then we also host customer days." The health of the hi-tech trade show industry has certainly seen better days. A study by Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide asserts since "early 2001, at least a third of the events and/or organizers for the tech industry have evaporated. Shrinking exhibition and business travel budgets have decreased event attendance by as much as 50%." Comdex saw about 125,000 attendees at its fall conference in Las Vegas, which used to attract well over 200,000 during the late 1990s. But that doesn't mean the hi-tech industry has given up on trade shows. Quite the opposite, actually. Companies are just being smarter and choosier about which shows they attend. "With limited resources, we have to be a lot more careful with our choices of events," explains Cisco's Neipp. "We are more involved with shows that are more focused. We're looking at areas such as IT telephony, security, wireless, and now storage. We're seeking a balance between the bigger networking shows, and smaller, more focused shows." But even as some companies are pulling back, a few hi-tech events are expanding, such as CeBIT, the IT show that will host its first event in the US in June. Seeing shows differently "What companies really want to show is ROI," says Bill Sell, VP of brand and customer development for CeBIT America. "That's difficult to measure at an event. As such, trade shows are getting harder to justify. That's why companies are going to events with a specific focus." Pepcom specializes in creating pre-show press and analyst events at shows such as Comdex and CES, and will expand this year to shows such as CeBIT America and E3. The shows are so successful in attracting media with the promise of unfettered access to companies such as Intel, HP, and Dell, along with free food, that many companies come for Pepcom's pre-show conferences and skip the main event. "We have fun, relaxing events where journalists can interact with the companies," said Pepcom partner Jon Pepper. "The companies are eager to come because the journalists are relaxed and happy. Companies want to be a part of our events because everyone there is from the press. They can get in front of hundreds of journalists and get their message across. The people walking around on the show floor aren't necessarily the press or analysts or people you want to talk to." Knowing whom you want to talk to before even signing up for an event is key, says Darcy Provo, VP at the Antenna Group. Her firm always looks at press lists from previous years before recommending a show to a client. "If you have an opportunity to be seen casually by a member of the media, it can be very powerful," says Provo. "There's a convergence of media, of targeted media, that you really can't get any other way. But you have to be careful about which shows you go to. You want to go to the ones where you can be heard. That's why we recommend more focused shows, where you don't have to fight to be heard." Big shows such as Comdex still have their appeal - HP launched its global branding campaign and Dell unveiled its new PDA at Comdex this past fall. But Hasl contends that those communications strategies had more to do with timing than the power of Comdex. "If Comdex had been scheduled for February, would those companies have waited on those announcements?" asked Hasl. "No way. It's how you use a show, and dovetail all the communications work into one portfolio of activities. They just used Comdex as a launch point to give their communications a focal point." Jane Welch, vice president of PR for Key3Media, which produces Comdex and numerous other shows, argues that Comdex is still important because, in its 23 years, it has always represented the global marketplace and has been a bellwether for the tech industry as a whole. And even with attendance down, Comdex is still attractive to companies like HP and Dell because there is a higher concentration of high-caliber attendees. "This is a perfect place for anyone to network, learn about advancements, and build relationships," says Welch of Key3Media's shows. "If you are interested in getting your message heard, then you want to be at the event where the latest and greatest things are happening in your industry." ------- Going it alone With technology companies seeking more focused events that offer a higher concentration of relevant attendees, many are finding that hosting their own conferences is the answer. Cisco is one such company. "There's been a shift over the last couple of years toward more Cisco-branded activities," says Nancy Neipp, Cisco's director of event marketing. "These aren't necessarily rival events to the formal shows. They can be low-key. But what they offer us is the exclusive attention of attendees." And Cisco isn't alone. A survey by Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide finds that larger enterprise companies such as IBM, HP, Cisco, Sun Microsystems, Microsoft, and Computer Associates are controlling costs by hosting their own events and customer conferences. "Hosting our own events has been a long-standing practice," explains Ed Sander, group director for SAP's CRM product marketing. "It offers SAP the opportunity to create a customer event for a specific audience. You can only do that with marginal effect at a trade show run by a third party. It's no surprise that you're hearing more companies are doing this. "Every company at an event seeks to control the event calendar and itinerary as much as possible," he adds. "It's a lot easier when you do it yourself." SAP goes so far as to use its own CRM technology at its customer conferences, customizing agendas and updating information constantly to create a customized conference experience for every attendee. "There's something intangible about getting that face-to-face interaction," asserts Neipp. "It's about building relationships."

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