It was sometime after Neil Young, Ariana Huffington and Al Gore had finished their bits on the Dreamforce stage. The speaker now was Eckhart Tolle, the most spiritually influential person in the world. But I wasn't feeling it.
I surfaced from the windowless basement of the Moscone Convention Center and found a cool gray October morning had turned into a warm, sunny afternoon. Hundreds of conference attendees lounged around an artificial-turf park on top of San Francisco's Howard Street. I watched two techies play ping-pong as Tolle's voice boomed from a nearby jumbotron.
That's when it hit me: In the world of big tech shows, the "show" now overshadows the "tech."
A Little Bit More
At a time marketers can buy leads by the score, engage customers with personalized emails, stage their own events and track prospects across any channel, sprawling technology trade shows are fighting for relevancy.
"They always want to outdo one another with something that's a little bit more elaborate, a little more sexy, a little more loud or a little more bright. In our view, we see that type of spend as the empty calories of attending an event," said Jim Wurm, executive director of the Exhibit & Event Marketers Association. "The real value of the event is the ability to engage someone in a live environment."
In addition to the last day's celebrity line-up, Dreamforce -- the Salesforce.com lovefest that drew 135,000 people this year -- featured appearances by Hillary Clinton and will.i.am as well as performances during a charity gala by Cake and Bruno Mars. CEO Marc Benioff called it "the best Dreamforce ever," perhaps because the Beach Boys played during his keynote address.
To be sure, the four-day event wasn't all about stars and parties. There were also 1,400 work sessions spread over a mile-wide circle around the conference center and hundreds of companies jammed inside multiple exhibit halls. But it made you wonder: Is all the other stuff really necessary? Isn't this about technology? The navigation of the event's website provides a hint: "highlights" and "keynotes" come before "sessions."
Trade Show Deja Vu
You can attribute part of my skepticism to Larry Ellison, who presided over Oracle's OpenWorld in exactly the same spot just two weeks earlier. Not only did Ellison park his giant America's Cup-winning catamaran in the middle of Howard Street for more than a week, the company also staged a concert on Treasure Island in the middle of San Francisco Bay featuring Aerosmith, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, and Spacehog.
Both shows clogged busy, five-lane boulevards in the heart of San Francisco, triggering half-hour delays for many thousands of angry motorists. The opulence also fueled the smoldering anti-tech sentiment of San Franciscans who've seen their rents skyrocket during the current tech boom.
I attended at least 15 technology conferences last year as proxy for CMSWire readers who couldn't make it to LA, Las Vegas, San Francisco or wherever. I was a guest of Salesforce, Oracle, Sitecore, Microsoft, Adobe, Amazon, SDL, Marketo, Gainsight, Kana, Alfresco and others. Almost all had rock concerts and/or parties, apparently thinking technology alone isn't enough these days.
Like most attendees, I learned a lot and met smart people. I love concerts or parties. But I wonder if tech shows shouldn’t be about technology and not, say, an overwhelmingly male crowd gawking at a girl in a bubble floating on the swimming pool of a Las Vegas nightclub. Credit Sitecore for that.
It's 2015. CMOs and CIOs face pressure to generate revenue and justify their expenses.
The exceptionally strong competition among tech providers suggest it's time to cut the fat, focus on the technology and put away the ping pong paddles.
"The entire trade show industry is under the gun to show a much clearer ROI. It's certainly one of the top three areas of spend, particularly for B2B companies selling industrial, commercial and technology products," said Donovan Neale-May, executive director of the CMO Council.
He believes new technologies will help to track the actual sales that stem from shows. Meanwhile, all that "clatter and noise," as Neale-May calls it, adds a lot of cost for both exhibitors and attendees.
According to E2MA data, the cost of a 1,500 square foot exhibit space in a typical show more than quadrupled to $31,246 from 1997 to 2009 -- roughly 10 times the growth of the consumer price index. And the US was in a recession during 2009. If that 1,500 space was a modest home, it would be renting for over $300,000 a month.
IT professionals who attend also shell out top dollar -- those concerts aren't really free, you know. Tickets to OpenWorld and Dreamforce, for example, start at about $1,000 for early birds and head higher as the events draw near. Then there's airfare, $300-a-night hotels and food. The San Francisco Travel Association gave Dreamforce its 2013 Crystal Bridge award for generating $82 million in direct spending.
In a study conducted by the CMO Council in association with E2MA, 45 percent of the marketers responding said their biggest challenge with trade shows was "making a strong business case" to attend. Two in five respondents faced hurdles with trade show costs and budget management. And, most ominously, three in 10 said they have a hard time turning trade show leads into "actionable" opportunities.
"Most struggle and are not very good at all at measuring the outcomes of their events and/or integrating the results they do get with other lead sources," said E2MA’s Wurm. "Whether they use a marketing automation program or some type of CRM, those results pretty consistently seem to get lost in the shuffle."
As in other areas of marketing, big changes are afoot in trade shows. Many shows already carefully track the sessions watched by each attendee and, if you've been to a show floor in the past few years, you know your badge will be scanned many times by exhibitors.
"Basically, new technology is transforming trade shows, not only in terms of accountability but in terms of networking, lead sourcing and relationship development," said Neale-May. "Technology is also impacting how trade shows are staged, quantifying traffic and profiling the visitors."
In the survey, the CMO Council found three-quarters of marketers want better analytics and reporting tools. And 52 percent called for technologies that increase engagement and lead flow. Tellingly, 32 percent think shows should introduce success-based payment models.
Less Flash, More Impact
Companies may be getting tired of sharing floor space with all their competitors, too. Two in five marketers said they're cutting back on the big shows and focusing more on niche shows. Forty-four percent of the respondents said they're producing their own customer-centric events.
Surely, big trade shows will continue, just as they have since the 1950s, and no doubt many will continue to try to seduce attendees with big parties, gourmet meals and celebrity speakers. But it’s also clear CMOs want to see clearer results, a sharper focus and lower costs.
Wild parties aside, trade shows will always offer marketers something more important that no digital marketing technology can match: face time.
"When you're there, it creates an entirely different experience and interaction that if it's done through an email, a social media post or even a quick phone call," said Wurm. "At the end of the day, what we know is true is that people enjoy doing business with people they trust. And it's pretty difficult to do that through electronic, digital or social platforms."
Tech show photos by Tom Murphy. Jim Wurm photo from Exhibit & Event Marketers Association. Donovan Neale-May photo from CMO Council.