I wrote this post while in-flight, en route to the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. I had never been to CES before and I’ve wanted to go since I was a teenager. Truly. So I was excited, but my enthusiasm was somewhat subdued. Why? Because 2009 is shaping up to be The Year the Trade Show Died.
Such sentiment, in the mainstream press and elsewhere, has been brought on by the recession (and the travel and spending cuts it has engendered) and also by Apple Inc’s announcement that this would be the last year it participated in MacWorld, which, though independently run, is the namesake tradeshow of its flagship product. Apple explained, and perhaps needed to rationalize, that (1) it is able to reach its customers through many alternative channels and (2) that the expenditure involved in tradeshow participation is no longer necessary, nor even prudent. The first point is undeniable, but does the second point logically follow?
The truth is, of course, that erosion in tech show attendance began quite some time ago; immediately following the events of September 11th, 2001, shows took a big hit. They recovered, but never fully. The common wisdom around this is that technical content on the Internet, which is both free and available on-demand, has posed serious competition to live events. For instructional or research purposes, Internet content is, in many ways, better than live content: it can be paused, replayed, played at double-speed, displayed side-by-side with development tools as you work, or played in the background. It can be aggregated, categorized and “rounded up” in lists of recommended content from people who have more time than you do, perhaps, to cull through the material. But that phenomenon has merely ended live events’ tenure as the sole source of such content; it does not eliminate the efficacy and necessity of live events overall. Yet that elimination is what some believe is happening now.
I think that’s nonsense, even if it does call for a change in approach. A few years ago, I changed my conference strategy to de-emphasize sessions in favor of keynotes (where news-breaking announcements are made, and visions are conveyed) and networking with my peers. I see technology events as a great way -- indeed the only way -- to be part of the news, make lots of valuable contacts, strengthen existing ones, and see products and technologies live, in-person and with their creators and marketers present to answer my questions.
Can I do that on the Internet? I don’t think so. Even if keynote sessions are Web-casted live, and even if the video quality is acceptable and the bandwidth is adequate, all of which is still a tall order, being in the room makes a big difference. And the peer networking is irreplaceable. Facebook, instant messaging and email go a great way toward allowing me to network online. But at a live event, the concentration of a large number of industry figures, in the same place, at the same time, brings about a social momentum that online cannot replicate. Emoticons are a poor substitute for the subtleties of actual facial expressions, body English, simpatico and bonding. The intimacy of sharing a meal or, dare I say it, getting drunk with a peer or a group of peers, builds relationships far better than writing on someone’s “wall.” In fact, online social networking tools become far more valuable when they complement such in-person interaction than when they are used on their own.
But even for session content, live events do offer important advantages. A well-executed conference is planned such that its content is sequenced logically and symbiotically and builds to a climax. Conference chairs, if they’re doing their jobs well, act like orchestral conductors, who arrange sessions and speakers in a way that enhances their effectiveness and helps you make efficient use of your time. Just as a magazine editor adds value to the raw availability of articles on a topic, by identifying important topics and issues, selecting good writers to cover them and working with those writers to produce complementary works in a single issue, a good conference should save you the time involved in identifying and arranging important coverage, and picking people/sources to deliver it most effectively. Do-it-yourself editorial is an excellent option, but it shouldn’t be your only one. Often, it’s downright impractical.
Information wants to be free, and it is. Optimized collections of that information, and effective conveyance of it, is not a commodity; its value is huge. It’s worth your time (because it saves you time), worth your money (because it helps you make more of it) and it’s necessary to distinguish this value and service from mere distribution and exposition of the content itself. Granted, the economy probably will require you to scale back your participation in live events right now. But don’t let that trick you into thinking the underlying value of those events has somehow disappeared.
VSLive San Francisco is coming next month and you owe it to your career to attend if you can. A month later, Microsoft’s MIX conference will be held, and Web-focused developers and designers should take advantage of it and the chance to have fun in Las Vegas with their colleagues while there. Tech Ed will be essential in tying together the multitude of Microsoft technologies new in 2008, 2009 and 2010. And PDC will bridge those technologies to the those coming further in the future. Do you need to go to all of these shows every year? Maybe not. Do you need to go to any of these shows this year? If at all possible, then yes. And if you can’t, then make sure not to mistake current conditions with the shows being somehow passé. Necessity is the mother of invention. Circumstantial challenge is not the mother of obsolescence.