Trade Show Obsolescence?

SAN MATEO (06/30/2000) - Although the big trade shows such Comdex, NetWorld + Interop, and PC Expo appear on the surface to be thriving, there are indications that the pressures of ubiquitous access to information from the Internet and the changing dynamics of business requirements are having a negative impact on massive product-oriented shows.

For the first time in 15 years, Houston-based Compaq Computer Corp. opted out of exhibiting at PC Expo in New York with officials saying, off the record, they could not get their message heard above the noise.

Austin, Texas-based Dell Computer Corp., which usually has a presence either on the floor or in the Javitz Convention Center this year booked a suite of rooms half-way across the island of Manhattan and was not considered a PC Expo participant, according to Expo officials.

Sun Microsystems Inc. was also a no-show. The Palo Alto, California-based company is becoming more selective as to where it demonstrates products such as the company's SunRay Internet Appliance according to Brian Healy, a group marketing manager at Sun.

Sun chose the recent Hi-Tech Expo in Dallas to display the SunRay because company officials believed that the smaller hospitality industry show gave them a more targeted audience, Healy said.

Analysts are seeing the trade shows in the same light.

"Vendors are finding easier, less costly ways -- the Web for instance -- to get to their constituencies," said Rob Enderle, an analyst at Giga Information Systems, in San Jose, California.

The big computer shows all came to prominence when hardware and shrink-wrapped applications offered the solutions companies were looking for, industry analysts say. But with e-commerce causing major disruptions to doing business as usual, corporate executives are now more focused on finding the right e-service solution. Big hardware-based trade shows may no longer be the venue that reflects this change.

"Look around. They call this show the PC Expo, but I don't see a lot of PCs," said Andrew Wong, a strategic accounts relationship coordinator at InFocus, a Wilsonville, Oregon-based data and video projection company.

With the choice of hardware far less relevant to a strategic business decision, PC Expo marketing executives are considering changing the name of the show but remain fearful of tampering with the brand, according to sources familiar with company plans.

Unfortunately, steps to reinvent themselves with events like Expo's Live RFP (request for proposal) event, a trial balloon launched this year where five Fortune 500 companies publicly submit an RFP for an e-business solution before a live audience, may highlight the inability of a typical trade show to adroitly address sensitive business issues. And larger exhibitors are not alone in reconsidering the cost vs. value of participating.

"A lot of people I talk to in the industry think [these] shows have outgrown themselves," said Wong, who opined that high-tech companies are beginning to understand that they can make better use of their marketing budgets, rather than devoting large resources to trade show participation, only to possibly get lost in the mix.

InfoWorld Editor at Large Ephraim Schwartz is based in San Francisco. Dan Neel is an InfoWorld reporter.

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