Is Bigger Really Better?

featured-crewcallWell, InfoComm is over. And I say that with somewhat of a sigh of relief. I spent a lot of the show seated at the podcasting table in the middle of the cacophony that was the rAVe booth, behind a group of overly energetic young people doing some kind of a line dance reminiscent to me of the Macarena, but which is apparently cool. The other problem was that everyone seems to know it, leaving me to wonder when I became culturally irrelevant in the industry I grew up in and thought I knew. There was a day when I was one of the people who practically spoke for the young people in our industry, and my verdict was always that line dancing was not cool. Real AV geeks did not dance.

But that is only one of the ways that the show has changed for me.

It’s gotten big.

I’ve always attended a lot of trade shows worldwide, and usually compared info, favorably to all of them. To me, as an AV geek and an avid photographer, the Mecca was always Photokina — a tradeshow so enormous, that you couldn’t see it all, like the Smithsonian. You would spend a week there, as would many of your friends, but you would never see each other. All of the discussion after the show would center around “did you see this?” and you would hear about not just a booth but a building that you were never in, and did not know existed.

InfoComm was different.

InfoComm was a much smaller tradeshow. It centered around the AV industry, by which I mean dealers and manufacturers. Everybody knew everybody. You went to the show to see the latest product, but more than that, you went to the show to see each other. You ran into people you knew from the industry in other parts of the world, you stopped in the spacious aisles, and you talked. You left the show floor and went for a beer. And there was room in the places that serve beer to do that. InfoComm, more than anything else, was the meeting place that bound a small industry together. It was a place that important business relationships were forged because you knew that everybody there had common interest.

Fast-forward 10 years, and welcome to Babel — a packed show of endless neon electronic sounds that sounds like and feels like a casino. Or, sometimes, more like the cantina from Star Wars. Finding someone you know, if you haven’t arranged a meeting and drawn a map that would’ve helped Stanley find Livingston, is a cosmic coincidence worthy of note. Yes, all the products are here. And so are all of everyone else’s products. And so are products for people you can’t imagine. And possibly products for aliens. It is divided into rough “interest areas” in order to give the illusion that specific group still matter. But they don’t. It’s a tradeshow, a big, expensive, crowded tradeshow, and has lost all illusion of being the meeting place for an industry.

Is this progress? Yes, for a tradeshow. All we talk about is how much larger it is than the year before. But, in my opinion, with progress for the tradeshow comes a loss for an industry group. We are no longer a trade association in the way that we were.

We talk about this as inclusion. We now include everyone. I remember during the growth phases of the association, sitting in a meeting with Randy Lemke, when he talked about producers and presenters as two more interest groups that should be included in the Association. Being in the rental industry, and dealing with them all the time, I thought about their numbers. At that point, I mentioned to Randy that including presenters would defocus the show to the point where it would no longer be an industry event, because presenters were in different businesses, and audiovisual was not their profession, but a peripheral part of their lives. From the looks around the table, I could see the eagerness among the staff, especially the tradeshow staff, to have their numbers. At that point, I knew it was over, because money talks. I then suggested that if we were going to go down this road, we should simply invite everyone who had ever seen a presentation, because that would give us an excuse to invite everyone. I tried to make an argument, pointing out that the Texas Cattlemen’s Association talked about cows, had products for cows, but did not invite them to the tradeshow.

Now such an argument could not possibly be heard over all the mooing.

Now, this is not all bad. It is progress for an industry to have larger numbers, a bigger tradeshow, larger budgets and more staff. It is progress for industry to have products from new manufacturers, and to help dealers appeal to attendees. So I won’t be the one to buck the trend about glowing articles about the tradeshow. It was bigger and in some ways it is better.

But I will say that there has been some benefit given up with growth. Those of us who are dealers, integrators and stagers, used to have this event as a place to get together in a more casual way. And it isn’t that anymore. Were we to attempt to establish that, in any way, the association that sponsors this tradeshow would have to argue against itt because we are no longer its only constituency. Oh, sure, we point out that there are still special interest events all around InfoComm. But there is no longer the dealer/manufacturer focus that there used to be. Those of us in that part of the business know that we have given up something in the show despite the starry eyed protestations of growth.

So I ask the question: Amidst all this growth, do you feel that we have lost the benefit that most industries have of a trade association totally focused on the needs of the integrators, dealers and stagers? Do special interest group events, regional roundtables and working group meetings really substitute for the kind of trade association that we used to have?

All of this, of course, is just shouting into the wind. I don’t expect a return to the focus of the past, because we need the kind of numbers that we have achieved in order to pay the cost of the giant association that we have become. So I am looking for my cattleman’s hat and then going to ask someone from the young rAVe crew to teach me line dancing.

In the meantime, for those of us in the dealer/stager end of the industry, I simply wonder aloud if there isn’t a good reason, in addition to InfoComm, to find a place where we can talk without the noise of all the cattle, and the well-meaning but externally-motivated guidance of the cattle herders.