Trade shows and conferences have been part of the business landscape for more than a century. In many ways, the protocol surrounding these events has remained unchanged over the years: a gathering of industry players at a central location for a limited period of time, with lineups of guest speakers and panel discussions complemented by exhibits showing the latest products, services and high-tech solutions.
Attendance at these events has recorded year over year growth in 24 of the last 25 quarters, according to the Center for Exhibition Industry Research. Business-to-business trade shows generated more than $12.6 billion in revenue in 2015, with roughly half generated by registration fees, according to Statista, an online statistics portal.
Yet some are not convinced that these events offer a return on investment
Ibraiz Tarique, professor of human resources and talent management at Pace University’s Lubin School of Business and author of “Seven Trends in Corporate Training and Development: Strategies to Align Goals with Employee Needs,” said the problem is not about the content of the event, but whether companies are sending the right people to attend.
“You need to find the individual with the right traits and skills,” he said. “Not everyone benefits from participating in these conferences. You need someone with the right sociability skills, a high level of learning agility, the ability to network and the ability to pass the knowledge learned at these events back to the company.”
Without those traits, Tarique added, companies gain nothing if the wrong employees are sent to conferences. “They can be very expensive and the worst thing anyone can do, ad hoc, is send someone to a conference,” he said.
The American Society of Association Executives estimated a median cost of $1,375 for a company sending a business professional to a trade show, with the greatest costs incurred for lodging, registration and transportation.
Mickey Herbert, president and CEO of the Bridgeport Regional Business Council, noted that travel expenses, coupled with employees’ absence from a company to attend a show, could negate the value of those events. “If I was running a company today, I’d want my employees to justify why they would need to go off to a conference,” Herbert said.
George Holly, founder and CEO of I.M. SMITTeN, an artisan furniture company headquartered in Trumbull, said some major retail firms have bypassed the trade- show circuit. “There are mass market companies that may only have eight to 10 customers but those customers provide 80 to 90 percent of their volume,” he said. “They will just visit their customers directly or have the customers visit their showrooms.”
Joe Gambino, vice president and general manager at Saks Fifth Avenue in Greenwich, noted that his company preferred the in-house approach. “I do not attend any industry trade meetings,” he said. “As a company, we attend in-depth training meetings with vendor partners and corporate partners, which provide robust information.”
On the flip side, some executives rely heavily on trade shows and exhibitions to connect with current and potential clients.
Margaret Price, CEO of Ridgefield Supply Co., a construction industry supplier, ensures that members of her corporate team each year attend a half-dozen national and regional industry happenings. “One of the fortunate things about the building material industry is that it is very old-world,” she said. “The face-to-face dialogue and conversation is very important to us.”
Robert Caruso, senior managing director at CBRE in Stamford, agreed on the value of trade event networking, especially when searching for new business. “It is a lot easier for a broker attending a trade event to have a client who is also there introduce you to someone during the show,” he said. “That is better than having to cold call or connect with people through a social
Trade shows could also benefit professionals who rarely get out of the office.
“This could be a huge step up, careerwise, and could help them understand their business better,” said Raymond Manganelli, a professor and executive dean at Mercy College School of Business in Dobbs Ferry. “For example, someone who works in the internal IT of a company would have new insight opened for them — otherwise, they would be circumscribed by the problems within their company. Also, someone who going to this event with their boss would have a chance to demonstrate abilities that their boss may not have seen in the day-to-day job.”
In many cases, the benefits of attendance outweigh the costs, Manganelli said. “I don’t think of cost — I think of value. I am not saying that you should seek out expensive and meaningless trade shows. It is important to be selective in choosing the ones where you can learn and see and converse with people in your field.”
At PCSB Bank, a regional bank headquartered in Yorktown Heights in northern Westchester County, officers are selective about trade event attendance. Joseph D. Roberto, PCSB chairman, president and CEO, said he has sent team members to state and national conferences covering single topics such as cybersecurity and bank regulatory changes. “We prefer to focus on specific industry-related issues, as opposed to just getting together and talking about general industry-type work,” he said.
Attorney Eric L. Green, partner at Stamford’s Green & Sklarz LLC, said that the onus ultimately is on the attendee to make the most of the opportunity. “You get out of it what you put into it. If you sit in the back of the room and play with your phone, you can just as easily sit your office and do that.”
“But if I can get one client out of attending an industry event, it pays for itself,” Green said.