Another opening, another show

If you have had the dubious honour to attend a trade show lately, you will have seen some interesting behaviour on the part of both attendees and vendors.

You will notice that vendor booths have become mini theatres where live or video presentations are delivered non-stop. You will also have noticed that booths that have the neatest give-away toys have the largest number of people around them – at least until the toys are collected, or until they run out. You will also have noticed that many of the presentations have nothing to do with products.

Somehow, you’d think, the comedians, cooking shows and scooters don’t provide the information about the product that we’d like to see.

Ah, but you’d be wrong. They aren’t supposed to deal with the products. The idea is to appeal to two basic instincts, greed and entertainment. Are you interested in winning a Volkswagen Beetle? How about a PT Cruiser? Just attend a large computer show and they’ll be there.

Mind you, what you don’t find out until you’ve filled in the contact sheet is that you haven’t really won the car; you’ve won a one-year lease on the car with all the complications that can cause. For a while, putting greens were all the rage and you too could win a putter of your persuasion. What I mean by that is either a left or right-handed putter.

Palm Pilots were strong contenders for a while but at the last show I attended there were only two organizations using a Palm to lure folks into providing contact information. Scooters are still a big draw, but I’m waiting for a motorized one that has a cell phone incorporated into the handlebars. That way, one can at least compete with the SUV drivers.

Vendors with clever, inexpensive but practical toys seem to be the winners. Items such as pocketknives, combination luggage locks and CD cases seem to be popular and at least keep the company logo in sight. Golf shirts and T-shirts seem to be waning, although there’s always a line-up for them.

One person I spoke with was honest about the T-shirts. He said that he always went to the shows to get a collection of cleaning cloths for washing his car. That leads one to think in terms of the PT Cruiser with a year’s supply of T-shirts.

The attitudes are interesting. People want the toys, but they don’t want to see the brochures or literature about the company’s products. Opening hour of any show or conference is like a Boxing Day sale at the mall. People just shovel the goodies into large plastic bags and run.

The entertainment element has always been there, but in the good old days, we were entertained by looking at the latest piece of hardware whirring away calculating the ultimate value of pi.

Or maybe we were entertained by a clever bit of software that did all of the business calculations we thought we needed and dimmed the lights automatically. Unfortunately, the software running on the aforesaid hardware provided some of the entertainment and the lights that dimmed belonged to the city.

Nowadays, it’s all changed. We now have Gilda Radner look-a-likes flogging software. At one conference, there were very beautiful young people of both sexes wearing the company golf shirts, but it turns out they were all models hired for the occasion. They could hand out brochures but they couldn’t answer any questions.

That’s probably not the image that a consulting company would really want. Having said that, I have no doubt that at least one person will e-mail me stating that all of their consultants on the last project they were on exhibited the same traits. That’s a topic of another column.

And then there are the video clips. Some companies are using video clips usually with upbeat music at very loud volume to attract attention. The ultimate conference entertainment experience is being able to pick up popcorn at one booth, a latte at the conference refreshment table and watch a video about the wonders of company X.

It’s just like watching television at home without the comfort. Talking with some of the vendors, they seem to think that these things are the expected norm. I wonder why? When asked about the amount of business that the entertainment brings in they don’t really seem to know. So much for intellectual capital. It’s just another opening, another show.

Horner is a partner at Sierra Systems Group Inc. in Vancouver. He can be reached at