OPINION Didn’t the demise of Comdex and similar events prove that the big, oversized technology trade show model doesn’t work anymore? Try telling that to someone in Germany

The secret behind CEBIT’s success

HANNOVER, Germany – Walking around CEBIT 2012 is like seeing what Comdex might have looked like had it survived.

Many years ago now, when the world was still recovering from the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, I remember covering Comdex in Las Vegas, boarding buses to shuttle us back and forth between the two main venues, the Las Vegas Convention Centre and the Sands Expo Centre. That seemed pretty big; it conveyed a certain sense of importance that the event straddled a pair of large facilities on either end of town. Then you come here, where you are in what amounts to an industrial park’s worth of convention centre-sized halls, easily 12 times the size of the largest Comdex that ever existed. And you can’t help but think about what went wrong there, and what’s going right here.

Part of it has to do with location, of course. This is Europe, where gaining access by setting up a distribution deal can make a big difference to a small North American firm. It’s also hard to think of any place in the U.S. that could easily pull off a trade show of this scale – it would amount to a project not dissimilar to an Olympic Games. But there’s more to it than that.

It’s not just the oversized exhibits, the pulsating music and the booth babes that make CEBIT seem like a throwback to a bygone era. It’s the very business model behind trade shows like this.  Although CES is still going strong in the U.S., it’s still really a consumer show. Gadgets at CEBIT aside, this is definitively B2B. In 2012, when everyone can research almost any product they want from their desktop, who needs to walk around a giant series of pavilions in order to determine their next set of technology investments? More to the point, why on Earth would companies be willing to send their business-oriented CIOs and IT managers on the high-tech equivalent of window shopping when so many of their purchases are now determined via request for proposals?

In their last days, the big tech trade shows in the U.S. and Canada realized their exhibitors weren’t getting enough ROI, and the emphasis slowly shifted to educational tracks and conference sessions. Years later, people become so sick of these events that we started to see the rise of “unconferences” which were less structured and allowed for more spontaneous interactions. While many at CEBIT have been insisting this week that it’s much more than a trade fair, I realized as I walked through the crowds that it represents, in some ways, a really big unconference. There were more animated conversations happening at or between booths than I’ve seen at any regular educational event in the past five years.

As virtual and distributed as the IT workforce has become, there’s also a morale boost in coming together occasionally, if only to realize you’re a part of a really amazing, healthy industry. CEBIT is a good reminder to IT professionals that whatever their challenges, they’re not alone. In fact, when you’re walking around CEBIT, you realize you’re almost never alone. Which is why even the best trade shows – and this was one of them – eventually have to come to an end.

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