As I write this, Macworld and CES have wrapped and I'm packing my bags for NAMM. Just two weeks into 2009, we're already on the third trade show of the year and honestly, I'm still waiting for the “wow.” Macworld and CES, the two largest technology expos, both had weaker showings than in years past, and the blogosphere is all abuzz with pundits debating the future of the trade show.
The biggest news from Macworld (the revamped iTunes structure notwithstanding) was the announcement that Apple will no longer exhibit at the show. Apple's reason for pulling out? The company connects with more people in more ways than ever before, and trade shows have become a decreasing part of that equation. This giant reaches more than 3 million customers weekly through its stores alone, which — according to Apple's Phil Schiller in his keynote address — is equal to “100 Macworlds.” Using that simple math, it's easy to question the relevance of the expo. And without Apple at Macworld, the future of that show (at least as far as the exhibits go) is uncertain.
At the same time, the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas reported an 8-percent decline in attendance, with 300 fewer exhibitors than last year — a 10-percent drop. On the technology side, neither convention played host to any earth-shattering debuts or shocking announcements.
Granted, these are largely consumer-oriented shows, and discretionary spending has taken a huge hit this winter. But this trend has hit the pro world, too. We've already seen heavy hitters like Apple and Avid pull out of NAB, and I've heard reps of a handful of larger companies wonder aloud if they'll make it to AES this year.
The black cloud of recession hangs over us all. In a tough economy, everyone's concerned about spending. And in the equipment world, that means hard choices about balancing allocations for R&D, marketing and manufacturing.
But there's another factor. The ways we receive information are changing. Conventions used to be the platform to set standards and announce landmark product developments. (Think ADAT, iPod.) Now, companies are finding innovative new methods to reach customers, ranging from local events to social networking campaigns.
For a technology developer, there are a hundred ways to reach a targeted, qualified audience, from road shows to dealer events to custom Webcasts, downloadable demos or online user groups. These methods not only work for the Apples of the world, they also work for the boutique gear designers and the little plug-in companies.
So, are trade shows dead? Hardly. Face-to-face time with — or as — a potential customer is invaluable. That idea exchange, networking, deal making still can't be replaced by technology. As a user, it's a rare chance to get out of the studio to see what other people are doing and interact with hundreds of different technologies under one roof. With hardware — from guitars to synths to studio monitors — there's nothing like auditioning the real thing. Therefore, as trade shows evolve into smaller, more community-focused events, we all work at new ways of staying informed and connected.
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