Thursday, January 28, 2010

Time for the VTS industry to help out media companies by reinventing itself

The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported that organizers are concerned that attendance for the International Woodworking Fair may drop significantly as a number of important exhibitors have decided not to exhibit.

Nothing really new there as trade shows have seen huge decreases in attendance the past few years. This year's CES show rebounded somewhat from a 22% decline in 2008 but was still well below 2008 figures.

In the meantime, I attended a virtual trade show (VTS) a few weeks ago and felt I was in a time warp. I will mercifully decline to name the show or the vendor, but the show design and booth layouts were really no different than when I first was introduced to virtual trade shows back in 2000-2001. After I had logged into the show I immediately searched for a specific booth, and when I got there I could not help but laugh -- not the reaction I'm sure the exhibitor would have wanted.

I've been a big advocate for virtual trade shows since my time at Reed Business Information (then Cahners). But it's time for these shows to grow up.

First, the old Flash formula needs updating: shows are slow to load, and navigation is about as fast as walking a show floor (OK, not quite that bad). Second, the price structure for publishers is still prohibitive.  I talked to a trade industry association a few years ago about launching a virtual trade show that would compliment their physical show. It never happened because I couldn't make the business model work. I kind of looked like a fool a year or two after pitching the idea of a show, but I was very honest with the director of the association, explaining that the costs and commitments to produce such a show prohibited me from ever seeing a dime of profit for all the hard work. Thank goodness the woman who runs the association was not only understanding but supportive of the decision.

The most successful virtual trade shows remain in the tech area, and are often sold and organized by show divisions within their company. But a good number of smaller publishers remain leery of launching shows. There are many VTS vendors out there who are very visible in the B2B industry, they sponsor ABM meetings and are important parts of the media industry.  But just as media companies are looking to launch mobile media products, redesign their publications for tablet and reader products, it is time for the VTS industry to reinvent themselves -- graphically, technologically, and economically.

The publishing industry needs new solutions to its trade show business problems. VTS companies are needed now more than ever. Just don't make me laugh at your products, though, OK?