If you're an engineer who attends occasional trade shows and conferences, then you've probably heard the new millennium lament on this subject, which says trade shows aren't relevant anymore. According to this line of logic, engineers are too pressed for time and their travel budgets are too tight, so they're better off finding what they need on the Web.
Well, maybe and maybe not. There's no doubt that some trade shows grew too big, creating a certain amount of distance between the organizers and the attendees. At some of those big shows, there were days you could roll a bowling ball down a center aisle and not strike anyone.
But that's not always the case. Consider two conferences from this past summer. NIWeek, held in Austin, TX, from Aug. 8-10, has grown furiously during its 12-year existence. A decade ago, the show was housed in a hotel basement in Austin. Now, it takes over the Austin Convention Center, drawing 110 exhibitors and more than 2,000 attendees from 57 countries.
Or look at the Freescale Technology Forum (FTF). Initially launched in Orlando, FL in 2005, FTF has expanded to include conferences in Bangalore, Paris, Munich, Tel Aviv, Tokyo, Milan and Shanghai. The conference's popularity has actually exceeded expectations. In Shanghai, Freescale executives expected 1,000 attendees and drew 1,500. In Orlando this year, the conference was punctuated by a closing keynote speech from former astronaut Neil Armstrong.
NI and Freescale are not alone. Texas Instruments and Intel run developers' conferences that have lured similar dedicated followings.
Admittedly, many industry shows can lay claim to bigger numbers. But in the post-9/11 economy, few can show any growth, let alone the kind that those four corporate-sponsored conferences have shown.
Sponsors could probably cite many reasons for the success of these corporate conferences. But the most sensible one is content. While many big show organizers are delegating the creation of tech sessions because they don't fully understand their attendees, the corporate shows are exceptionally good at creating hands-on demonstrations, labs and tech sessions. And there's good reason for that: The executives know the attendees because they're their own partners and customers.
"It's not a potluck dinner," notes Ray Almgren of National Instruments. "We're clearly focused on the topics we're going to educate them on."
Indeed, Almgren says that focus is what causes attendees to return year after year. "There's a certain critical mass and magic here that's difficult to re-create," he says. "Our attendees are passionate about this conference."
Sponsors admit there are drawbacks to attending corporate conferences. The biggest of those, they say, is that attendees are drinking from the same corporate spigot from dawn to dusk. But for many, that's not a big issue. They attend the conferences for technical training, and they receive the precise training they want. For them, conferences aren't losing relevance; they're gaining it.
"Travel budgets aren't a big issue for engineers who want to attend conferences," notes Daya Nadamuni, a Gartner-Dataquest industry analyst who attended this year's NIWeek. "It all comes down to the technical content of the conference. If the content is there, engineers attend."