Trade shows were once one of those perks handed down by the Masters of the Universe to their lower-and-middler managers- a day away from the grind for those who represented the companies or even just got the day to attend- with activities at the booths, plenty of bling to be hauled in at the tables, and probably more than a few beers worked in. The first one I ever attended, at the same downtown convention center as today, was probably in the early 90s, and it was packed. You could fill an office-supply closet with the pens and notepads and calculators all given away gratis- and food of all kinds came with the territory.
This bunch today had few of such things on offer. I was lucky to walk out with a reuseable grocery-ish bag to haul what little there was. Few exhibitor-branded products you could use, not much information about many of them, and only a handful had food beyond a token candy jar. I walked the whole labyrinth several times, looking for old friends, one-time clients and, that ever-popular group, companies I've sued. I saw none of the latter and very few of any of the rest. The booths were heavy on franchises, many of the Amwayish persuasion where the real product is Ponzi-scheming new "consultants" to join the "team." That, and lots of government offices and non-profits, pimping their services mainly to the other exhibitors.
Some, like our firm, had exclusives on their category, so there were no other lawyers at tables and few if any wandering around. Another exclusive sponsor was the local CBS television affiliate, which had a promotional video running on an endless loop right across the aisle from us. It was fun the first time, but after seeing Letterman morph into Colbert about 100 times in three hours, it got a little old.
The people from my office said it was the deadest they'd ever seen it in the years they've been sponsoring. Some of that may have been the timing- many local schools take this week off for their spring break, keeping some potential attendees home with their schoolkids and others out of town with them. But even more, I suspect, is Corporate America taking away this little sop to the masses. Others have noticed, as well, such as this author of a piece titled The Death of Kings and Trade Shows about one particular industry's event:
In the early and mid 1990s, being at FOSE was akin to being at the hottest club in New York or LA. There was the FCW Potomac boat cruise (invitation only, and quite exclusive), the on-site first night exhibitor reception (open bars and tons of hors d'oeurves), hundreds of exhibits, thousands of people and the ever-present but often cool tschotskes, the give-aways.
In 1994 when WordPerfect launched version 6.0, the company commissioned a symphony- Innovations- to commemorate the product launch. The orchestra and choir toured the country, and FOSE was one of the stops. Invitations to the Warner Theatre for the concert were non-transferable- you had to be on the list. I still have the CD they gave out at the performance.
Then, in the late 1990s through 2007 we had the Battle of the Bags (aka, the Big Bag Theory). The tote bags for the swag became a rivalry among the resellers (VAR Wars), especially CDW, MicroWarehouse and GTSI. The largest recorded bag was 42" long by 12" wide by 36" high- qualifying as a condo in the far East. The biggest bag was from Best Buy, a late entry in the VAR Wars and now missing in action.
Today's only Bag Battle was trying to find one. Few attendees even had one to carry anything, and fewer of the booths had even disposable plastic ones available. And while a few of the exhibitors (including our office) put on presentations on small business topics, they were in a quiet corner of a generally quiet hall. No concerts, no finger foods (save the two local competing barbecue rib joints that put out nearly indistinguishable samples), and certainly no booze cruise down the Genesee River.
And yet we won the day- with the stupidest of smiley faces.
The office has tried different things to stand out. Sometimes they seemed fun- we passed out duck-shaped paperweights a few years back- and sometimes they seemed WTF- such as the velcro'd squares designed to be used as luggage tags, because who DOESN'T need a business lawyer when heading to baggage claim? This year, though, they came up with the idea of a stress ball- with the classic untrademarked smiley face on it, orange but heat-reactive so as to turn yellow after you bash the little face in.
No, really. I can prove it.
You see the yellow, right? It IS there. This is not an April Fool. Here, watch it again on Vimeo.
All fooling aside, by the time I left in the early afternoon, the place was flooded with these things. Grown men and women were playing with them at their tables. I saw one of the tv station people trying to juggle a few; others were playing handball off the walls behind them. And all of them were turning those oranges into yellow like there was no tomorrow.
Which, for this kind of show, there might not be:(