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Economic Indicators October 19, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.

With the current economic malaise, everyone is looking for some sign that things are turning around.  I recently had a chance to check one of my favorite economic barometers and the news is not good. I am referring to the Vendor Exhibit Swag Index, which assesses the value of free items given away to attendees at major conference exhibits.  Having just returned from a week at OpenWorld, I can confirm that the VESI is down dramatically from last year.

A year ago, free iPods and Wii consoles were being thrown at attendees with wild abandon, and raffles for cars and motorcycles were common.  This year, you’ll be lucky to get a blinking pen or a small USB drive.  Even the bowls of candy atop the vendor tables looked like something left over from last Halloween. The tightening of marketing budgets tells you a lot about the finances of the company, and the VESI looks grim for 2009.

Beyond the disturbing economic news the show floor was, as always, a microcosm of the real world.

The OpenWorld exhibit floor is huge, occupying two floors in San Francisco’s Moscone center.  In the center of each floor is the high-rent district, the equivalent of Boardwalk and Park Place at the show. These booths are larger than some homes and are crawling with marketing folks who feign interest in your obscure IT problems while mentally counting the minutes until they can get out of their 3-inch heels.  The very priciest booths have two-inch padding under the carpet to soothe the aching feet of the vendors and customers.

When the VESI is high, in good years, you’ll find the best giveaways at these booths.  Crafty attendees know how to exploit a diversion, swooping in while a vendor is distracted to grab a pen, flashlight, or t-shirt. It takes a certain kind of person to score an entire bag of goodies without ever getting their badge scanned. For the discriminating IT professional, a single show like OpenWorld can yield a new wardrobe for an entire year, from casual t-shirts to dressy Polo shirts, topped off with a coveted logo jacket for the winter season.

Just off the center of the floor is the suburbs of the exhibits, with the starter booths and McMansions of the aspiring vendors. Not quite rich enough to run with the big boys, these vendors can still put up a nice booth with decent giveaways and a manageable staff. No padded carpet, mind you, but they might have some futuristic chairs for you to sit in.

Beyond these companies, though, lies the backwaters of the show floor: the little generic box booths that ring the room.  Here you’ll find the vendors that scraped together everything they had just to show up.  Often, the same two people will be in the booth for four days straight, dead on their feet by the end of the show.  You can almost imagine them maxing out their credit cards to get in, hoping that they’ll generate enough leads to justify the expense.  Their fixed smiles are overshadowed by the desperation in their eyes as you walk by.

And who hasn’t taken that awkward walk down the back aisle of a show?  Booth after booth of anxious vendors, hoping and praying that you’ll stop, chat, and place an order on the spot.  As you run that gauntlet, eyes averted, you can almost feel their shoulders slump as you pass by without stopping.

And what if they call out to you? “Can I tell you about our new product release?”  Like a knife in your heart. All you can do is quicken your pace, purse your lips in a tight smile, and quickly shake your head as you move on to the bright lights and excitement of the center of the floor.  Behind you, another broken vendor stands next to a bowl of individually wrapped Life Savers and a stack of literature, untaken. It wasn’t supposed to be like this, they think. Next year, we’ll spring for Reese’s Cups.

Let’s hope that next year is a better year, with a VESI through the roof and every vendor in a big, beautiful booth. And if you do go to a show, grab one of those pen/laser/USB/wifi-detectors for me.

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1. Steve Santana - October 19, 2009

This is a good sign – companies spending their precious marketing dollars in more creative ways, or better yet, on improved quality or differentiating services. I’d rather have a 4GB thumb drive with ALL of the tradeshow collateral; It’s searchable, sustainable, and reusable. That free shirt never seemed to fit after the first wash anyway…

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