Business press, trade shows and deja vu

I've received a bunch of angry and a few cordial emails about my supposition that DATE was either dead or not long for the world.  Grant Martin of Tensilica even made a comment on my post yesterday pointing out how valuable the content and meetings were for him at DATE.  Some people pointed me to Peggy Aycinena's rambling review of DATE (that I had begun to read but stopped after I saw the first comment complaining that she hadn't really talked about the content.)  So, for the record, I know that the content in technical conferences like DATE, DAC, Semicon, etc. are all outstanding stuff.  I know that the chance to meet with colleagues face to face is important.

That's not the point.

Back in 1995 I started writing a State of the Media report for clients to let them know where editors had moved to, what they were promoted to and what new publications they should be looking at.  In 1998 I started noticing that magazines were starting to struggle.  In 1999 I noticed ad revenues were starting to slip.  In 2000 I predicted that if we didn't start advertising again, we weren't going to have any press to cover industry.  That prediction has almost come to fruition.  I never said the press that covers industry was unimportant or lacked value.  I said if it wasn't financially support it would go away.

So here's my point: It is happening again.

When companies stopped advertising, the money didn't go away.  Most of it went into tradeshows and technical conferences.  The DATE and DAC conferences exploded and a tradition in the EDA world began where 70 to 90 percent of all marketing budgets went into tradeshow support.  Then the bad times really hit, and companies started scaling back, choosing to drop the smaller conference and some eventually pulling out of conferences altogether in favor of their own private confabs.  Companies that were not exhibiting but had willingly signed travel approvals for employees to attend, started cutting travel budgets... even if it was just to drive from San Jose to Santa Clara and attendance started dropping.

Now the quality and value of the content didn't necessarily drop, just the attendance.  That meant that the companies that organized and ran these events started seeing their own revenues drop.  Trade show floors are starting to look like ghost towns.  Exhibitors that are still participating are grumbling "Why did we even come here?"

What we still seem to be ignoring is that someone has to foot the bill.  Corporations have been doing it for a long time but they are not that convinced that the conference is worth the sponsorship money, especially when up to 90 percent of the shrinking marketing budget is tied up in that support.  If those same companies refuse to pay the bill for their employees to attend to get that great content and make business connections, the cost has to come out of the employees' pockets.  If they can't/won't pay it, the presenters will be speaking to empty rooms.

And that's the bottom line folks.  I know that there are important things presented and discussed at technical conferences, but they are not charities passing out free food to the homeless.  The financial model is as broken for trade shows as it is for media.  If it isn't fixed it ain't gonna last.