They're crowded, noisy, informative, exhausting and sometimes fun and profitable. But trade shows are also very expensive at a time CMOs need to show a strong return on investment (ROI) on every marketing dollar.

Once they were the place where vendors launched their latest products and business managers came to write big checks.

Today, most product launches take place outside of trade shows, digital marketing drives year-round conversions and marketers buy qualified leads as a commodity.

"The entire trade show industry is under the gun to show a much clearer ROI," Donovan Neale-May, executive director of the CMO Council, told CMSWire recently. "It's certainly one of the top three areas of spend, particularly for B2B companies selling industrial, commercial and technology products. But today a lot of that stuff is being virtualized."

To be sure, many companies still consider trade shows as critical to their marketing programs. About 61 percent of marketers allocate 10 percent or more of their budget to events, with 18 percent spending more than 30 percent of their marketing dollars on trade shows, according to a 2013 study conducted by the CMO Council in conjunction with the Exhibit & Event Marketers Association.

Additionally, half of those interviewed spend $100,000 or more supporting trade show activity through multichannel marketing and logistics. One in five spends more than $500,000.

We decided to ask senior marketing execs about the relative value of trade shows in today's marketing landscape.

The Question

Compared with other marketing channels, do today's trade shows deliver enough return on your marketing dollars?

The Answers

Karen Walker, Senior Vice President for Marketing, Cisco

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Walker leads Cisco's global Go To Market Organization, which drives the company's marketing strategies and programs, including demand generation and event marketing. In 2014, her team won the Sirius Decisions ROI Award by engaging customers with digital and social media during their purchase journey. Her two decades in the technology industry also includes a series of senior positions with Hewlett-Packard. Tweet to Karen Walker.

Let’s not kid ourselves – today’s buyers are in control of their customer journey. Ninety percent of business buyers initiate the first step in the buying cycle. They’re researching online long before they engage with sales. Whether they’re consuming digital and social content, or attending trade shows, customers decide how deep a conversation they want to have with your brand.

Whether it’s B2B or B2C, people still want to engage with humans. That’s where the emotional connection is, and a recent Google/CEB research study suggests buyers need an emotional connection to buy at all. Trade shows are still a viable venue for having those face-to-face, human-to-human conversations we want to have with current and future customers. We add science to the art by using data and analytics to choose which trade shows we attend, based on which ones will actually drive the desired results for the buying personas we’ve identified.

According to a (Center for Exhibition Industry Research) CEIR report, 81 percent of trade show attendees have buying authority, and we see a trend toward many arriving with a short list of providers. In a world that’s increasingly digital and social, trade shows still allow us to cost-effectively reach and connect face-to-face with a large number of customers and prospects. In terms of measuring ROI, we developed a sales qualified lead (SQL) program that allows us to track sales activity to trade show engagement.

While buyers are in control of their journey, the true value of the trade show is based on the rich brand experience we provide, and the action we influence them to take.

Tobias Lee, CMO, Tax and Accounting, Thomson Reuters

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Lee oversees the global marketing strategy including demand generation, online marketing and other areas. Previously, he was global vice president of consumer and SMB marketing at Trend Micro where he served led global web marketing, North America marketing and corporate marketing. Prior to that, he worked in brand marketing at Dell Computers and Toshiba. Tweet to Tobias Lee.

Trade shows come in various shapes and sizes and while many have pointed to the decline of their importance in the marketing mix, for us they still play an irreplaceable role.

Digital marketing is fantastic and we are certainly increasing our investment and intelligence with our approach there but nothing can replace face-to-face interaction and it’s ability to establish and manage relationships. So we are investing more in digital marketing strategies to ensure the quality of attendees at our shows are better and our conversions are proving this theory out.

Each year we host Synergy, our major customer conference across the globe, and the positive impact we are able to have with our customer relationships by attaching a face and personality to our solutions is invaluable. We see a significant difference in the customer lifetime value of engaged customers attending live events than those who don’t and that’s because people, at the end of the day, appreciate people.

Marilyn Mersereau, CMO, Plantronics

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Mersereau has a quarter-century of experience leading global marketing teams. Before joining Platronics, she was SVP for corporate marketing at Cisco where she drove the "Welcome to the Human Network" branding campaign. She's also served as CMO and SVP at C3 Energy Management and vice president at IBM, where she won three Effie Awards. She's also worked in leadership roles at Coca-Cola, Wendy's and Burger King International. Tweet to Marilyn Mersereau.

People have a need to connect with other people. Today we are inundated with information at every turn of, and have seconds to digest each piece. We have a deep-seated human need to have face-to-face interactions and true engagement -- to see, touch, feel, smell, really engage. At CES this year, our trade show presence featured the human experience and human moments. Customers and partners gravitated toward us. There is much talk about the Internet of Things…people are really interested in the Internet of their Things. Personal conversations at trade shows are very valuable; scheduled meetings (onsite and offsite), engagement with partners and customers throughout the show, and showcasing our solutions to press and investors offer immediate feedback from all types of audiences.

By taking advantage of the numerous digital and social platforms now available in and around the event experience, our one-to-one conversations at the show become one-to-many outreach opportunities in a digitized world. Trade shows have evolved from the traditional product launch platform and lead generation program to become a key customer engagement component to our market communications strategy. They are a key component of our marketing mix, as well as a powerful brand-building and sales tool. Trade shows are back, in a big way.