When we conducted a recent poll to find out what TechRepublic readers expect from their trade show and conference dollars, we learned that they’re a fairly picky bunch.

Sure, they enjoy getting freebies like software and golf clubs, but they also expect substance from the events they attend. IT pros want qualified, knowledgeable speakers, a well-planned schedule, and plenty of time to talk with vendors and other attendees. A decent hotel room and good food wouldn’t hurt either.

Here are your peers’ picks for the best trade shows and conferences the IT world has to offer.

Winners: NetWorld+Interop and Great Plains
A clear favorite among networking professionals is the NetWorld+Interop Conference, one of the world’s largest networking trade shows.

Sharon Wallace attended NetWorld+Interop in Atlanta for several years and has “watched them get better and have better speakers.”

James D. Lewis, senior network systems engineer with the Southwest Florida Water Management District, began attending NetWorld+Interop in 1994 and has returned every year since.

“In my opinion it’s one of the best,” he wrote. ”I’ve won several items at this show, but that’s not the primary reason I go. The best items I’ve received have been a Palm Pilot and diagramming software, NetViz. We now [use] this product for documenting our network.”

Several respondents praised Great Plains Software’s events. James Thompson with Toronto Terminals Railway Co. said the best conference he’s ever attended was Great Plains Software’s annual Convergence conference in Orlando, FL, an event designed to help customers maximize the functionality of their Great Plains Software. He was most impressed with Great Plains’ employees.

“Not only were they available to answer questions, but they actually helped resolve current problems, providing everything from expert knowledge and advice, to hooking me up with the head office to correct real problems my company was having,” Thompson said.

He also found value in meeting and sharing ideas with other attendees, most of whom owned or were employees of small to medium-size businesses. “We met and talked constantly throughout the conference,” he wrote. His only complaint was with the Walt Disney World hotel where the conference was held.

“Monks have better quarters to live in,” he told us. “$200-plus a night for a dormitory is simply a rip-off. The last time, I had my employees go to the Best Western, a short drive down the street.”

Shantal Wilkins was also impressed with a free Great Plains e-commerce seminar in San Antonio.

“The food was great, and they gave away a Compaq laptop and desktop,” she wrote. “For a free event, that was unbelievable!”
Of course, no one attends a trade show just to get free stuff, but it does make for a pleasant bonus. Here’s what a few respondents went home with:

  • ·        Del Lewis recently attended a Microsoft TechNet event that unveiled Windows 2000, where he won the door prize: the Office 2000 Premium edition. “Not a bad $650 going-away bag-stuffer!” Lewis wrote.
  • ·        At the BICSI Winter Conference in Orlando, FL, Wil Longstaff of Sigma Technologies won a set of Lynx golf clubs at one luncheon and a digital answering machine and phone at a door-prize drawing. A co-worker won a set of design manuals at another luncheon. “There were quite a few door prizes handed out, but the best prize of all was $30,000 raised through the BICSI Cares Committee that went to Kids Beating Cancer,” Longstaff wrote.

Other top contenders
From an exhibitor’s perspective, trade shows and conferences are a better buy when they target specific industries and audiences. Often, the events that draw thousands of attendees become too large for their own good.

Bob Brodie, director of client services for Aeneid Corporation in San Francisco, raved about the events hosted by Net Market Makers.

At the event where he exhibited on behalf of his company, there were “tons of qualified clients who weren’t just looking for a free T-shirt,” Brodie wrote. “We have found that smaller seminars like this, hosted in quality hotel facilities, are the best of both worlds. Expenses are minimal, and the audience is highly focused, and usually comprised of decision-makers. The return on investment on this event is very, very strong.”

Rick Taylor of Intel Corp. attended the recent Microsoft Technology Week conference in New Orleans and said he’ll definitely be back. “I received a lot of good information, the venue was great, I met a lot of great professionals, and got a lot of swag [freebies],” Taylor told us.

Wil Longstaff, project manager for Sigma Technologies and winner of the free golf clubs and phone (above), wrote that the BICSI Winter Conference in January was the most professionally managed conference and trade show event he’d ever attended. The conference, held in Orlando, FL, was the largest ever held by the international telecommunications association. The trade show portion of the conference consisted of more than 170 vendor booths intermingled with strategically placed catering services. Longstaff liked the fact that the trade show was open before and after the daily seminars and presentations.

“The seminars and presentations were upbeat, hit the heart of the issues we face today, and addressed the strategies for embracing emerging technologies,” Longstaff wrote. “Meticulous planning for even the most mundane items such as message boards, trash cans, refreshments, location guides, and speakers’ rooms was apparent everywhere. Most of the vendors held hospitality suites through which lunches and evening meals were served in conjunction with vendor presentations, games, and door prizes. Our company now labels the BICSI conference as a must-attend event.”

Erik Carlson, a network administrator with Applied Management Systems, Inc., was impressed with the classes taught at the SANS Institute’s Federal Computer Security Conference in Baltimore last year. The SANS (System Administration, Networking, and Security) Institute is a cooperative research and education organization.

“The instructors were top-notch,” Carlson wrote. “I would highly recommend it to any network security professionals.”
This is just a sampling of some top-notch trade shows and conferences for the technology industry. Is there a must-attend IT event that didn’t make it on our list? Tell us about it by posting a comment below orsending us a note.