Trade Shows Suck...And What You Can Do About It

Most trade shows have become stagnant and lack meaningful content, innovation and authenticity. Here's a few suggestions on how you can get out of that rut.

Am I the only one who thinks construction shows and conventions are pretty terrible these days? Within the last five years or so, it seems like the ROI on trade shows is on a downward slope even though the construction industry itself is picking up steam. What gives…? Maybe I am expecting too much or maybe I have been to too many shows and it all seems old? Perhaps it is actually time to open a discussion on whether shows can and should get better?  I’ve observed some big-named exhibitors--that ALWAYS attended the big shows, in a big way--but have stopped exhibiting or have significantly cut back their budgets.

I travel to and attend around 30 shows per year on behalf of my clients. The big construction industry shows like IBS, Greenbuild, AIA, Remodeling (and others) … these generally SUCK the most, both as an attendee and as an exhibitor. Attendees are there to learn and see what’s new, but truly new stuff (knowledge, products, services) seems rare. As an exhibitor, the lack of meaningful leads usually leaves them questioning the expense and hassle of attending … especially when too many employees see the show as an all-expense-paid vacation.  I would prefer exhibitors attend when they have something exciting to offer, be it a new product/service, an early look at some concepts (like car concept shows) or because they want to listen to the needs and challenges of attendees. If you just come because you always have, please consider saving your money ... you won’t be missed … not by me anyways.   

It isn’t just that the shows are too big, but they lack authenticity. Ouch, that hurts, but it’s the truth. These mega-show formats are predictably boring - educational sessions where someone talks at you for an hour leaving about two minutes for any kind of interaction at the end. A trade show floor which is an ocean of salespeople with local “eye candy” spending big bucks on gimmicks to hawk their wares. There is so little true innovation at these shows that hunting for free coffee or the best party that evening becomes an actual goal. So with no one really pushing innovation at these shows, what can be done?

1. Go to non-traditional events/shows. My business partner (Cal Trumbo) and I are “construction scouts” - we are constantly looking into the future of innovation and technology to find what will disrupt or move the industry forward, faster. We believe significant and meaningful innovation is going to come more and more from outside the construction industry. So, if you want to get ahead of the curve, go look where others are not.

Tony Faddel of Apple launched his Nest Thermostat and turned it into one of the largest residential product manufacturers in a matter of four years. He sold the company for $3.2B, which was about one-third of the market cap of the largest homebuilders that have been around for decades. Let that sink in a bit.

Check out AEC Hackathons, a mashup of technology and building geeks disrupting the construction space. Or look into the following events for a new perspective: Consumer Electronics Show (CES), Construction Risk Conference (IRMI).

The trade specific shows like RCI, AHR, RESNET, World of Modular, have better parties because they are slightly closer-knit groups, but generally everyone is selling, selling, selling. A bit of advice for exhibitors and educators: try listening and/or interacting more.

2. “Some people are extremely good at making small talk. These people are better known as ‘idiots.’” - Chuck Kosterman. We aren’t connecting to each other beyond the “transaction”. It’s almost comical how people sneak around the show avoiding eye contact with booth folks.

Next time you’re at a conference, engage with others. Ask them what they have learned that is new and different. Be authentic. If you are working a booth, show new stuff (real or fake, ready or not) and ask attendees what they think. They will love you for it, and you just might uncover (or validate) a problem you didn’t know about.

RaterFest! in Colorado

RaterFest! in Colorado

The events that we find more valuable generally create a strong sense of “community” and  camaraderie by getting attendees/exhibitors to interact with one another. Events like Building Science Summer Camp and RaterFest! do a good job of this but even sponsored events like HIVE and Solar Summit are much more engaging. The events are designed with a lot of time to intermingle in a setting where honesty is valued and the hard sell is forbidden. We attend conferences to come away with new ideas, new friends, or to reconnect with old pals … and yes, there are those looking for new clients - but new clients come from first listening.

And if, after taking my advice on step #1 and #2, you are still not satisfied, it’s time to move onto step #3.

3. Grow a pair and sign up to teach a session or host an event that challenges everyone with some new thinking! Many conferences, by default, are CEU war zones. Strewn amongst the battlefield are a few sessions we are glad we attended. Most of what is shared is old info that’s been regurgitated one too many times (please rate the session, especially if it sucked!). It is surprisingly easy to get on the agenda of many conferences. Just submit a unique idea … or get together and host your own mini-conference and who knows, maybe it becomes the next IBS!

So what events are you getting the most value from, or which have become a waste of your time and why? Please share!!

See you at the next event!