The Real Value of InfoComm

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Crew CallWell, I am just back from InfoComm, and I have decided to do something that I’ve never done before. Each year, before the show, I tend to write an article about what I expect to see at the show. But I very rarely write anything afterwards about it since a tradeshow is primarily about product, and I don’t review product.

But I must admit that this year I went to look at different things than I normally do. There have been many changes in our show this year, including traditional and important large vendors dropping out, and a number of new ones opting in. You may also know that I am an enthusiast of several new types of methods for disseminating information about product. I am a heavy proponent of VR, web-based narrowcasting, and other distance communication methods for these purposes. So, in many ways, I went to see for myself what the current value of the tradeshow is. And I’ve had a bit of an epiphany.

The tradeshow is valuable to us simply because it is our only disorganized event.

Yes, I mean that. Even though most of my professional life I have been involved in the heavily organized and structured world of trade shows, I believe it is the disorganized aspect of trade shows that is most important to us at this time. Because, you see, while the show may be organized, WE as attendees are not. And I think that is important, specifically because the bulk of our industry events are professionally organized and have agendas. Even strategically important “discussion” events like the InfoComm 100 and InfoComm Live are pretty thoroughly organized to get through an agreed-upon list of topics.

Let me explain why I consider this so valuable. I’ve come to the conclusion that the tradeshow has become the “water cooler” of our industry.

Recently, I was having lunch with a friend, the president of an architecture firm with whom we work closely. We were talking about meeting spaces, both those for temporary (rental and staging) events, and those for permanent installations. One of the things we discussed was that companies are putting in more casual, relaxed meeting spaces for ad hoc discussions, because they recognize that many of the best ideas (and almost all of the new ones) are first raised in casual meetings where they were not on the agenda, simply because nobody had thought of them yet.

These kinds of conversations were once described as “water cooler” talks. But, in an industry like ours, which requires cross-pollination of ideas, there isn’t a nearby water cooler that I can gather around with industry friends who happen to live on another continent. And even the largest companies in our industry are small companies compared with the norm. So having the kind of unstructured time we have at the convention, walking the aisles or hanging out in the ridiculously-overpriced restaurants and watering holes, is truly valuable time. And it’s about a lot more than product.

Many of you are now retorting that the tradeshow is all about product. But is it really? Or has product been our traditional excuse to gather? My manufacturers mostly visit me regularly, and talk about (and even demonstrate) their newest products. They bombard me with email announcements and web links. Honestly, how many of you were “surprised” by one of your manufacturers new products at the show? It almost doesn’t happen anymore. There are just plain better ways to get that information out. And products have become too complex to be truly demonstrated effectively on the tradeshow floor.

No, trade shows are now, for me, about people. About forming relationships with our allies, our manufacturers and distributors, and even our competitors. About learning about programs, who runs them, and what’s in them for us. About sharing off-the-cuff comments and ideas that don’t have other good places to form. And about shaking hands with real people. The booths are just the places where we know those manufacturer personnel will be, and a convenient place to meet them, with product as the excuse.

joel-2011They’re the water cooler of the industry. And sometimes, we get thirsty.

rAVe Rental [and Staging] contributor Joel R. Rollins, CTS, is general manager of Everett Hall Associates, Inc. and is well known throughout the professional AV industry for his contributions to industry training and his extensive background in AV rental, staging and installation. Joel can be reached at joelrollins@mac.com