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Good Riddance to Ye Olde Trade Showes

Last spring, your editor did some fast talking and smooth persuading to break through his company's somewhat limited travel budget and get himself sent to Atlanta for Tech-Ed, Microsoft's annual conference for IT folks. And do you know what happened? Nothing.

Well, not much, anyway. There was a superb, as always, Redmond magazine party. There was some quality time spent chatting with a few third-party vendors, some more interesting than others. And there was a chance to meet fellow pixel-stained hacks and hang out with some far-flung colleagues.

But that was about it. And for the cost of a flight and hotel, food (and, uh, drink) and several days of being on an interrupted and unusual work schedule, that's not much. Granted, Microsoft didn't make a lot of big product announcements in 2011. But Tech-Ed, once kind of a big deal, didn't even feature a Steve Ballmer keynote. Microsoft made very few folks available for press interviews (and actually closed the press room early), and most of the "news" that came out of the show was a rehash of stuff we all already knew or a look at some of the more granular details of products everybody knew was coming (such as the Mango update to Windows Phone 7).

Sure, there were probably a few deals signed and some valuable networking opportunities taken. But, really, Tech-Ed felt like a dud of an event, a relic of what used to be a can't-miss spectacle. In other words, it felt like a trade show, one of the last of a dying breed that will likely see more attrition in 2012.

The funny thing is that, as lame as it was last year, Tech-Ed is the type of show that's actually likely to survive. It's put on by a single vendor and focused on a specific target audience. Its size is reasonable (somewhere in the high four figures in attendance in 2011, if memory serves), and it doesn't feature big-name entertainers or other such expensive and increasingly rare and ineffective draws. (Your editor remembers seeing Sheryl Crow and Lenny Kravitz perform at SAP's SAPphire show, circa 1999. Today, a Lenny Kravitz video playing on a tablet in the concourse of a convention hall might come off as a little ostentatious at an industry gathering. Not to mention dated.)

It's the big shows -- remember COMDEX, gone for nearly a decade now? -- that are whistling in the industry graveyard these days. Not many of them are left, of course, and the ones that are still big or trying to be big, like CES and Macworld, are losing clout and major vendor participation pretty rapidly. Apple hasn't been part of Macworld for a couple of years now. Think about that. That's like the Super Bowl without football. All that's left are a few parties and some low-level media buzz that barely cracks radio static these days.

What's in now -- and we say this not just because 1105 Media runs some of these things, although it doesn't hurt -- are smaller, localized events more focused on education and small-group networking than on in-attendees'-faces advertising and blockbuster product announcements. Learning about virtualization a few hundred miles from home (if that far) is of much greater value than traveling 2,500 miles to hear a really spirited keynote (if anybody even does those anymore). Of course, virtual events have reached critical mass in the last five or six years, too, now that the technology to support them actually works and is commonly available.

Here at RCPU, we're not exactly bemoaning the slow death of the old-school trade show. Sure, there were some fun nights out back in the '90s in San Diego, Chicago, New York and even wretched Orlando (that's where the expense report for booze came in handy), but traveling got to be a grind after a while. (There was, incidentally, never any fun in Philadelphia, ever. And it is not always sunny there, either.) We can't be the only ones who feel this way about the old fall and spring schedules. Plus, the general insanity of the huge trade show usually led more to a lot of rushing around for nothing than it did to meaningful conversations or, in our case, really important stories. We figure we're in the majority when we say that we're glad to see the COMDEX-type shows fading quickly. 

But now, even the smaller, more focused Tech-Ed-type events, the ones that are supposed to be the future of business travel in the technology industry, feel superfluous and forced. Vendors don't make big announcements at them anymore because they can't always get their stuff together well enough to break out new products on promised timelines. Technical sessions too often focus on new stuff that nobody's actually using yet or that IT folks won't ever have in their infrastructures, anyway. (That's a real complaint from a real IT person. Sometimes vendors forget just how long companies hold on to technology that required a lot of investment to acquire and implement.) Outside of the Redmond shindig, attendance at parties and other outside events is dwindling all the time. Keynotes are lame, serving less of a purpose than press releases, fact sheets and simple phone conversations about new products.

We're not trying to talk ourselves out of going to Tech-Ed in 2012 (in Orlando -- so maybe we are trying to talk ourselves out of it), and we're not saying that you shouldn't read RCPmag.com's superb annual coverage of one of the events that does still matter, Microsoft's Worldwide Partner Conference. What we are saying is that in an era with very good Internet videoconferencing and product launches that increasingly happen when a vendor is good and ready rather than at scheduled events, we're happy to, say, drive to Boston for a local meeting with Microsoft or sit in on a webcast, but we're less inclined (and less able) to fly to Vegas or L.A. to go through the motions of attending a show that's a skeleton of what it used to be.

And that's fine with us. Let the vendors come to us, and not vice versa. It's about time we got to hear about new developments while sitting in comfy chairs and eating food that doesn't come pre-wrapped in a box. Lenny Kravitz wasn't all that great live, anyway.

What's your take on the future of the trade show? How often do you attend shows these days? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below or send them to lpender@rcpmag.com.  

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Posted by Lee Pender on January 03, 2012 at 11:56 AM