I go to more trade shows and seminars than United Van Lines. Even now I am just back from NetWorld+Interop, preparing for Comdex and thinking about ComNet. So I feel eminently qualified to present the 10 immutable laws of trade shows:
1. Never stand in line for a toy. Your company will pay US$5,000 (salary, airfare, hotel, lying on expense account) to send you to some distant city. You'll spend 15 hours at the show - which comes out to $333 per hour - and you're going to sit through a boring half-hour sales pitch to get some dumb tchotchke with a corporate logo?
2. Avoid the "suits." You want to talk to engineers, not sales types. Sales types have good haircuts; engineers don't. If the person you are talking to has a good haircut, run. Trust the ponytails.
3. Carry nothing. If you start to pick up technical literature, you will carry it back to your office . . . where it will nest for the next five years, long after the products themselves are obsolete. Make the vendors send you this stuff. Tell them to send two sets so they know you are a serious buyer.
4. Bypass the keynote. The keynote speeches for Gates, Ellison, Chambers, Ruettgers, Gerstner, et al were written by the same "vision" wordsmiths working out of a basement in La Jolla. They have an uplifting keen sense of the obvious, which translates to "We get it! They don't!"
5. Go to the small booths, not the big ones. Here you may actually find some hot products. Ask who that vendor's upstart competitors are, then go visit them, too.
6. Avoid the cocktail parties. I know your secret desire is to get drunk and lucky, but it's not going to happen, so you might as well watch "West Wing" and get a good night's sleep.
7. Only go to presentations by end users you respect. The rest are vendor presentations. Here's a hint: the snazzier the PowerPoint presentation, the less content it contains.
8. Force yourself to write a trip report. Insist that your direct reports do, too. No one will ever read them, but knowing this is a requirement will keep you semifocused.
9. Use a fictitious name and carry fake business cards. Or else you are going to be besieged by sales types calling you for the next six months. I use the name "Pancho Villa," and whenever people ask for Pancho, the secretary tells them he can't be reached - he's at a trade show.
10. Keep the cards from users; toss the vendor cards. You may want to talk to a user about what his company is doing and what worked or didn't work. The vendors will all be working for another firm next week anyway.
Anderson is senior managing director of Yankeetek, a Cambridge, Mass., venture incubator. He is also chairman of The Yankee Group and the William Porter Distinguished Lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.