If you’ve spent any time working in IT, you know there are hundreds of IT industry conventions and trade shows held every year all over the world. You could attend an event 365 days a year and probably still not hit them all.

Trade shows and conferences offer a good way to meet and greet peers in a like environment, and perhaps more importantly, to meet the people who purchase consulting services. But with the abundance of IT events, you might have a tough time deciding which would be best for marketing your firm. Here are some resources that will help you make an informed trade-show choice.

Is bigger really better?
Computer-industry trade shows and conferences generally fall into two categories: national and regional. Names like COMDEX, Networld+Interop, Comtec, Dataquest Service Trends, and IPSCON come to mind when you’re talking about national shows. These can have as many as 500-1,000 booths and attract a more diverse audience, including end users and the general public. They usually run a full business week and continue through the weekend. That’s a lot of time to network and promote your business, but the fees can be steep as well. A standard 10’ x 10’ booth can cost 15 to 20 times as much as the same amount of space at a regional show.

Of course, bigger isn’t always better. The number of booths at regional shows is usually limited to around 200, which means less competition for attention. They also tend to be scheduled in the middle of the week and are mostly business-to-business events, meaning the attendees will usually be a more homogenous group.

Whether your firm plans to have a presence at a national or regional show, there are plenty from which to choose. EXPOguide is a search engine that lists trade shows for all industries, as well as resources to help users prepare for shows. TechCalendar, a service of TechWeb, allows you to search for upcoming IT events in nearly 40 categories, or you can use TechRepublic’s own events calendar to search conferences and shows by month. There’s also Trade Show News Network, which allows you to search for events by industry and offers advice and other resources on planning and logistics, travel, research, and more.

Ask around, use your search engines, and call the marketing departments of other firms and ask what they recommend. I discovered that most marketing departments were willing to share information and to say which ones were best.

Costs and benefits of national shows
Rob Dilbone, vice president of sales for LearnitCorp.com—a Gainesville, FL, computer-based training developer and provider—recalled the expenses involved in exhibiting at the Las Vegas COMDEX in 1999.

A 10′ x 10′ space alone cost the company about $5,500. Electricity, an Internet connection, carpeting, and the booth itself were extras not included in that fee. In all, LearnitCorp.com spent about $15,000 for COMDEX. Is it worth all the money?

Definitely yes, said Dilbone. In 1997 at Comdex, Microsoft representatives strolling the convention floor noticed LearnitCorp’s display and asked a few questions. Later, LearnitCorp signed a lucrative development contract with Microsoft that helped put them on the map. Today, LearnitCorp’s training tutorial developed for Microsoft Windows ME is hard-installed into every new computer with Windows ME software, and their Windows Office 2000 training is available at most major computer-applications retailers. There’s no doubt their attendance at this national show was a major factor in the growth and success of their company.

Regional shows more cost-effective for start-ups
Regional shows can be cost-effective, and they can help bring in new clients. According to Robert Glanville, director of events with the Portland, OR-based Computer Technology Showcase, the average regional IT show booth runs from $1,200 to $1,700, including carpet and extras. “Regional shows are often good business choices for those just starting to showcase their talents,” Glanville said. “Besides the low layout in cash, your business is made known to the other computer businesses in the region.”

Glanville noted that the events staff at TechShows.com walks exhibitors through the process of preparing for the show, offers do’s and don’ts, and provides a list of show attendees to allow for further networking opportunities.

“Regional shows can be a goldmine of information if you take the time to network while you are there,” he added. “Always man your booth with both technical and sales-and-marketing people, so that when someone asks a technical question, there is a qualified person who can answer it. Otherwise, you might lose a potentially lucrative customer.”

Show hints and tips
Linda Homewood, marketing communications supervisor of Barr Systems, Inc., a Gainesville, FL-based provider of data communications products, gives additional advice. She said attending a show and asking other attendees questions is one of the best ways to determine which shows are right for your company. She recommends that you:

  • Watch out for hidden costs. If the trade show is in a “union” town, you may not be allowed to transport your own equipment from the delivery area to your booth. Costs can be $1,200 to $1,500 just to deliver a few boxes to your booth from 50 feet away. Drayage (materials handling fees) can cost as much as shipping and handling. Ask up front when scheduling your company for a show.
  • Keep displays light. Keeping display material at a minimum saves not only shipping and handling costs, but also saves time in booth setup.
  • Design a display that can be updated easily. Barr Systems frequently changes the graphics used on its display, yet the components of the display are reused from show to show.
  • Don’t put out too much literature. People often suffer from “brochure overload” and end up tossing them all in the trash. Make sure the literature you do hand out is concise and interesting.
  • Get information and addresses from visitors to your booth. Find out what they need, listen to them, and take notes—some of your visitors may turn out to be your best leads.
  • Follow up after the show. Target potential clients with another shot of well-prepared literature along with a “thank you” letter for stopping by your booth. Let them know you appreciated their time and that you’re ready to serve them. They’ll appreciate the extra attention.
  • Network, network, network. Trade shows can provide a wealth of both knowledge and clients if you use them as a place to gather information. Disseminate the information gathered, act on it, and your trade-show experience will be a successful one.

Which is the best trade show for IT consulting firms? Why? Post a comment below or send us a note.