I was at Interop/Web 2.0 for meetings this week. I also walked the expo floor talking to startups and attendees.  It struck me how broken the whole “conference” thing is.

Vendors want leads but tradeshows are a notoriously poor source of qualified leads.  At every company I have worked at, when we actually tracked leads all the way through to revenue I’ve never seen any real return from trade shows.

Attendees want to network and learn what’s new.  Talks can sometimes give some “what’s new” perspective but the speakers are generally folks who speak/write/blog enough that nobody needs to see them live to get their content (I was told by one well-known presenter that he had 16 people attend his talk).  Attendees can see what’s new at the expo of course but they will have to suffer a sales pitch few of them want in order to get it.

Networking is going on around the show, in hotel bars and restaurants and at vendor-sponsored parties (now there’s a great place to qualify a lead!).  So, the attendees get to hang out and party and the vendors pay for that.  Sounds like a pretty good deal for attendees but the vendors sound like suckers.

So you’re a startup looking for prospects.  Is buying a booth at one of these conferences worth it?  This is a case where it would probably be useful to apply the $100 bill test:

  1. Add up what you would spend on the show.  It probably looks like this – air travel for 2 people – $2000, hotel for 2 people for 3 nights – $1800, food, taxi, etc for 3 days – $500, plus booth cost – $3000 for a 1 man tabletop,  gets me a total of $7300.
  2. Take that number and divide by 100.
  3. Calculate the number of decent leads you could get by handing out $100 bills outside the Javits center to folks who answer yes to a question like “Are you an IT decision maker?” and give you their card.
  4. If that number is higher than the number of leads you would get at the show (in this case 73) – don’t go.

Oh yeah, and if your employees want to attend one of these conferences make sure they at least spend a lot of time at the bar at your competitor’s party.

A off-topic green footnote:
The EPA considers Trade Shows to be the 2nd most wasteful industry in the United States after Manufacturing. That is without even looking at the environmental impact of the associated airline and hotel industries that are also supported.