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The trade show shuffle

Has online made offline obsolete? Brainstorm investigates.

BY  Lesley Stones , 1 November 20110 comments

Christy Turner, WebTickets, says he doesn’t have the time to attend trade shows.| photo: Sean Wilsonphoto: Sean WilsonChristy Turner, WebTickets, says he doesn’t have the time to attend trade shows.

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Eventually, everything reaches the end of its lifespan. Food, magazines, humans, even entire planets: nothing lasts forever.

Especially not IT trade shows, which often reach the end of their lives almost as soon as they begin. The redoubtable Computer Faire finally expired in 2008, after an image-refreshing name change to Futurex failed to reignite the spark. Numerous other trade shows have launched and fizzled out after just one or two years.

It’s no surprise really, since the amount of information now available online lets you research almost anything without leaving your desk. So when you walk around empty aisles or attend a seminar where the speakers outnumber the audience, you have to wonder if they still have any relevance.

Yet for each one that fades, another arrives. This month sees the debut of IP EXPO in Johannesburg, an exhibition focussing on virtualisation, cloud computing and IP technology. Gartner’s annual conference in Cape Town has carved out a status as a premier event, with a three-day feast of international analysis on everything IT. Cape Town also hosts AfricaCom, while at least seven IT events were advertised for Johannesburg this year.

Conferences are always on the mind of Mikesh Seolall of Southern Sun. He’s an IT manager involved with the Sandton Convention Centre, where reliable technology is crucial to ensuring the numerous exhibitions staged there are successful.

“I attend as many forums and workshops as possible because that’s where you meet experts discussing options that your business can benefit from, like cloud computing,” he says. “There’s a lot of literature around, but it’s easier to talk to someone after you have read the literature.”

Seolall particularly values the chance to see which trends are evolving in the US, UK and India, to get a heads-up on technologies that will only reach South Africa in three to five years.

Seolall is a trade show browser, not a buyer. He does the homework and research to suggest solutions to Southern Sun’s senior managers, who make the policy decisions. Trade fairs give him a broader view than he would get from meeting salespeople who contact him about a specific technology, he says.


Staying ahead

“I get more unbiased opinions. They may be product-specific, but there are a lot of people with experience at the shows rather than a salesperson coming to tell you theirs is the best. At trade fairs you can compare a variety of different solutions.”

Christy Turner, the CIO of online ticketing company WebTickets, feels he ought to attend some trade shows, but so far he hasn’t had the time.

“It would be nice to go and attend an event, but I haven’t had the time to go when we need to run the business.”

Most of the services WebTickets has bought or evaluated have come from recommendations or from vendors proactively calling to sell their offerings. It may be better to assess a variety of different offerings all under one roof, he says.

“I need to keep abreast of what’s going on. You can get so bogged down in the minutiae of the business that you don’t look ahead, and this is so fast-moving that we ought to go to these shows to stay ahead of the competition.”

It isn’t lack of time, but a lack of money, that keeps him away from Gartner’s annual conference at R17 740 a head.

Says Turner: “There was a lot of really interesting stuff I wanted to check out but there’s no way I can afford it. I think Gartner appeals to big companies with huge IT departments and budgets.”

WebTickets was launched four years ago by Turner and a partner who developed the software and systems themselves. “Everything was built in-house so the only things we require expertise on are things like an internet service provider, search engine optimisation and network infrastructure.”

He would appreciate an exhibition that focussed on e-commence and new ways to handle payments online or via a cellphone. WebTickets is already partly integrated with cellular technology, as a ticket bought online by credit card can be delivered to a customer’s cellphone, which is then scanned at the event’s entrance.

Although Turner would attend an IT trade show as a visitor, not a participant, his company has taken part in the Markex exhibition aimed at event organisers. If you choose the right event with the right audience, trade shows probably offer good value for exhibitors, he says.

“It gave us a lot more credibility in the market and people took us seriously, especially because we put a little bit of effort into our stand. The most important thing with an IT exhibition is probably to make it fun and interesting and wow people.”


Selective

As the divisional director of IT for Dawn, Gert Coetzee could spend too much time attending conferences to keep abreast of evolving IT and related topics such as corporate governance. But Coetzee has a big business to run, because Dawn distributes 40 000 products, including sanitary ware, plumbing and kitchen equipment from 2 500 suppliers to 12 000 customers in the building sector. So sitting in a conference is extremely frustrating if it doesn’t live up to its promises.

“One has to be very selective about which conferences or workshops to attend. A lot of these pan out to be more sales and canvassing sessions, rather than real value-delivering, informative sessions,” he says. “It’s important to understand which sessions are applicable for your business, and have the potential to help you in your daily decision-making and planning and strategic processes. I generally let common sense prevail, and am guided by my own sense of information need.”

At the moment, corporate and IT governance are high priorities for local companies, and numerous workshops are taking place to capitalise on this demand. Often the workshops focus on Cobit, a framework for IT management and governance based on a toolset that defines 34 processes. However, some of these seminars are designed so the presenters can get a foot in the door to run Cobit exercises for the potential customer.

Trade shows obviously elicit mixed reactions. Some conferences can be highly informative, others are little more than sales pitches where you go to the vendors, instead of the vendors coming to you. Exhibitions that bring together several rival vendors around a theme that is relevant to your company can prove well worth the time you invest in attending. But if the vendors that best serve your needs are not exhibiting, your time will be wasted. The answer is to be highly selective and quite possibly a little sceptical, and to pore over the agenda and list of exhibitors carefully before you venture forth.