@internet -- Conventional Wisdom

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After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site

Everyone knows it's a mistake to spit into the wind (or to expel any other bodily fluid, for that matter). Everyone knows it's a bad idea to tease a pit bull, a Hell's Angel or an angry cop. And everyone ought to have figured out that Lotto games are actually a tax on people who don't understand mathematics.

All of the above are examples of conventional wisdom-bits of accumulated insight so obvious that anyone ought to have cottoned on to them by the time he or she is old enough to vote. Mind you, that doesn't mean that everyone actually has acquired these clues. After all, ignorance is a perfectly curable disease, but stupidity is congenital.

As it turns out, one area in which there isn't much in the way of conventional wisdom is in how to most effectively attend computer trade shows and, you guessed it, conventions.

What's the Plan, Man?

The first big computer trade show I attended was Comdex, 1989. I learned a number of things from that experience, but, the single most valuable lesson the experience taught me was how important it is to plan ahead. I showed up in Las Vegas with no hotel reservations, no particular agenda and (as it turned out) nowhere near enough cash.

Big mistakes, all of them.

If you want the best value, you absolutely have to make travel and lodging arrangements well ahead of time. Reservations are especially important, since a lot of hotels are block-booked (which is to say that many organizations-very definitely including the trade show promoter-book a large number of rooms simultaneously) months ahead of time. That does two annoying things: it creates an artificial room shortage and it jacks up the rates.

The best way to get a bargain on airline tickets is to use the services of a consolidator. These folks get great deals on popular flights by buying fistfuls of tickets at bargain rates. They then resell them to their customers at a relatively modest markup, providing better rates than even professional travel agents can manage. Since most computer trade shows take place in major destination cities, such as Atlanta, Las Vegas and San Francisco, there's a good chance your local consolidator will have seats available for you-especially if you manage to get your order in early.

Although a lot of people know about travel consolidators, a lot fewer have heard about hotel consolidators. As you might expect, these folks do for hotel rooms what travel consolidators do for airline tickets. That's especially important because trade show promoters will often block-book all or nearly all the rooms in a city's major hotels and then provide rooms to attendees at "convention booking service" rates which are a bargain only by contrast with the inflated rates those same hotels charge for their few remaining available rooms. With a consolidator, you can usually avoid falling victim to this scam.

Another possible strategy is to make reservations in hotels which are not on the list the trade show promoter provides to you. This requires you do a little more homework, but can often pay off in dramatically lower rates. Yet another strategy is to simply show up without reservations and begin making inquiries about vacancies after 5:00 p.m. or so. There are usually a certain number of no-shows and you may be able to snag a room despite the "No Vacancy" sign. (Note that you won't get any break on the price and that there's no guarantee this strategy will work, however.)

As important as are planning your travel itinerary and lodging, they pale beside the need to plan your attack on the resources of the trade show itself. You can easily waste three full days at a convention, if you don't figure out in advance why you're there and what you want to accomplish.

There are essentially three things that computer trade shows have to offer: direct education, exposure to products and the opportunity to make contacts in the industry. Your agenda may include any or all of these, but you should know ahead of time which are your priorities and try to arrange your schedule to maximize the return you expect on the investment you're making in time and money.

A Class Act

Some trade shows have a lot more to offer in the way of direct education than do others. In general, sessions presented by vendors offer more hype and less usable information than do those presented by independent experts and consultants. (Like any generalization, there are exceptions, but, as generalizations go, it's a useful one.) In my own experience, Microsoft is one of the worst offenders in this regard. With very few exceptions, Microsoft seminars I have attended have been almost purely marketing events and their actual technical content has been low to non-existent.

On the other hand, the single worst session I ever attended consisted of nearly undiluted technical information. It was a seminar on Apple's then-new remote access services presented by an Apple propeller-head who spent the entire 90 minutes speaking in an unvarying monotone, his eyes fixed on the overhead transparencies in front of him. The room was dark and the acoustics were terrible, and what started out as a full room was practically deserted by the time the poor dweeb turned off the overhead projector.

Ask around. It's important to find out who the good presenters are. You should always fill out the speaker evaluation forms for sessions you attend, too. That's the primary means by which the show promoters learn to distinguish good presenters from bad ones, so, as an investment in the future, it's worth the few minutes it takes.

Unfortunately, other factors have entered into the equation in recent years. Some vendors are willing to pay greedy promoters to let them conduct sessions in an attempt to buy the appearance of legitimacy for their products. Likewise, other greedy promoters have started insisting that presenters sign over the copyrights to their own presentations. No good independent presenter will agree to give up intellectual property rights to his or her presentation, especially since well-crafted, content-rich presentations can take weeks to create.

In many cases, really popular sessions will be presented more than once, so, if two such classes conflict with one another on one day, one of them may be offered on an alternate day and time, allowing you to resolve the conflict. If that doesn't work and you have to pick only one or the other, consider leaving the session you choose a few minutes early to attend the last few minutes of the other. You'll miss most of the presentation, but you may well be able to pick up the handouts. That can be an acceptable substitute, because, if the presenter is any good, the handouts will incorporate most of the key points he or she covered. (Note that, while you can usually buy a CD-ROM that theoretically includes the handouts from every session, there are often omissions and Murphy's Law will see to it that the handouts you wanted will be among those omissions.)

You can usually order an audio tape of any given session, as well. Combine that soundtrack with the appropriate handouts and you'll get nearly the same value as you would from having attended the class in person.

The Floor Show

The big, heavily advertised and glitzily promoted conventions, such as Comdex, Internet World and Networld+Interop may seem like the compelling draw, but, if you're primarily interested in seeing specific kinds of products, you may be better off attending a smaller, more focused show, such as--ahem--ISPCon or one of the Networks Expos. The problem with the big shows is that they're zoos, with consumer-oriented, mass-market merchants jammed in cheek-by-jowl with corporate-oriented, big-ticket vendors, all intermixed without rhyme or reason. In particular, Comdex and Internet World also tend to pull very mixed crowds, with a high percentage of civilian rubberneckers diluting the pool of attendees like you-technical folks with a focus and an agenda, needs to fill and money to spend today, damnit!

That's bad.

It's bad because vendors' booth personnel often can't distinguish one from the other. That means that they waste a lot of time and energy on the tire-kicking tourist who has no intention of buying that new router or high-end concentrator or (insert your product interest here). Uncle Billy is there to see the sights and pick up a few tee shirts and other trade show gimmes, while you have work to do. Especially in those larger, more heterogeneous venues, you're reduced to being a face in the crowd, instead of the center of vendor attention and respect that you so richly deserve to be.

Therefor, before you actually enter the maelstrom, it will pay you to spend some time with the show floor map, planning your attack on the vendors whose products interest you. Particularly in the bigger exhibits, you're probably going to have to spend a certain amount of time just hanging around the booth you've targeted before you can get the attention of one of its inhabitants. Even then, there's a good chance you'll start off talking to someone who doesn't know enough about the technical end of the product to adequately answer your questions and he or she will have to flag the attention of someone who can actually do so. That always takes time, because, thanks to Murphy, the techies are always busy talking to someone else.

If you're comfortable with making a spectacle of yourself, you might try waving a fistful of currency at him or her. It doesn't even have to be large denominations, since the gesture is a conceptual one--you're saying, "I have money to spend."

If flamboyance isn't your style, you'll simply have to bide your time. While you're waiting, you can probably answer some of your questions by reading the product literature that the booth attendants will thrust at you. One of the most valuable lessons that first Comdex experience taught me was to read the literature in the booth--but not to carry it home with me. In fact, I make it a firm rule not to carry paper of any kind home from trade shows. I do so because, after my initial Comdex venture, I arrived home with three big bags bulging with product tearsheets, specifications and the like. Carrying all that paper hurt my hands and strained my shoulders and the prospect of wading through it all to extract the gems from among the dross was so daunting that those bags just sat in a corner, untouched, for six months before I got tired of looking at them and threw them out.

I now insist on having the exhibitors mail their literature to me. It arrives at a rate that allows me to actually read it all and I can keep up with the flow adequately enough not to feel overwhelmed. I can also throw away what doesn't interest me without feeling guilty about pitching the baby out with the bathwater.

Besides, if they don't bother to mail me their literature, it's pretty clear that they didn't really want my business--not to mention that they have problems with customer support and with followthrough. Forewarned is forearmed.

Face the Face

Attending a trade show specifically to make industry contacts is a chancy proposition. Although the movers and shakers often do attend, typically they're in full headspinning mode. Everyone wants their attention, which means that everyone gets their attention...but only a small piece of it.

I wouldn't bother trying to tackle a keynote speaker, for instance. It's usually a waste of time for both of you, unless you're willing to simply ask for his or her business card and plan on actually trying to hold a conversation sometime later, well after the show is over and done. Unless you're Marc Andreessen or Steve Jobs, don't bother giving him or her your business card, either. You will have to take the initiative later on.

You're much better off if your goals are more modest.

Trade shows can be very rich sources of contacts--especially technical and marketing contacts--with individuals within organizations with which you do or would like to do regular business. An investment of a little time and/or money can pay big dividends in terms of technical or marketing support contacts that will later permit you to make an end-run around tech support line call queues or to outflank the phalanx of junior marketing types that vendors like to put between you and the folks who have the actual authority to cut quantity purchase deals. If you're on an expense account, consider inviting such prospects out to lunch. It will be a pleasant surprise for them (the expense shoe is usually on the other corporate foot) and it will ensure that they welcome your call further on down the road.

A Two Drink Minimum

If you're up for a party or six, try to befriend someone with a press badge. As much of a love-hate relationship as vendors have with the computer trade press, we are something of a privileged class. In the press room, we usually get fed and watered for free during the day and we get invitations to all the parties (including some that ordinary mortals never hear about). Very often, we get extra invitations and some of us are willing to share them with real human beings.

Ask and ye may receive.

Mind you, the free food and booze are attractive reasons to attend trade show parties, but the potential contacts and inside information are the real reason to attend them. Not only are they a good place to hobnob with vendor reps, when it gets late and the alcohol has been flowing for a while, you sometimes hear things that exhibitors would never consider revealing when they were sober.

Finally, whether you go to parties or not, keep in mind that you're going to be spending long hours standing and walking on unyielding concrete. So, regardless of whether your style is a suit and tie or a tee shirt and jeans, everybody knows you should make sure you wear comfortable shoes with good arch support.

Don't they?

(Copyright© 1997 by Thom Stark--all rights reserved)