Delegates sleeping at a conference

Are trade shows and conferences becoming a waste of time?

Are trade shows and conferences becoming a waste of time? There are over 1.8 million conferences, incentive events and other meetings in the US alone, according to the Events Industry Council. They are a great way to introduce new employees to an industry and they offer those established in the industry a stage for their expertise. And, let’s face it, there’s no substitute for expos like the Consumer Electronics Show for seeing the latest new products up close and personal.

Big, splashy events

And yet, the frequency with which I hear busy executives say they’re done attending big, splashy events has peaked this year. Where is all the hate for big conferences and trade shows coming from?
I think I have pinpointed the answer to that question: it’s only recently that these execs have had the experience of attending a conference that really felt like time well spent. A new model of small, conversational conferences is emerging, delivering more interactive knowledge-sharing and better results, and in comparison the flash of big events loses its appeal.

Focus on one-way presentation

The problem is the focus on one-way presentation. Sitting in a session room with 75 other people listening to a presentation might be interesting, but chances are you’ll find yourself watching a dull PowerPoint slideshow explained with too much jargon and not enough charisma. You can’t really have a conversation about the topic, unless you can corner the speaker afterwards, and you are unlikely to connect with that other person across the room who asked that great question and then disappeared at the end of the session.
If your goal is to network and bring back new tactics you can apply to your organization, the crowds and the spectacle of presentation-focused events can get in the way. Smaller conferences modelled after the big ones and suffer from many of the same shortcomings: stages, big screens, ‘impressive’ PowerPoints, and an overreliance on celebrity keynote speakers and entertainers.

Antithetical to a conference

People frequently refer to these events as ‘shows’ – but I would argue that a show is antithetical to a conference. Literally speaking, a ‘conference’ means a place for people to confer, a meeting of people to have a conversation about a certain subject. A show, on the other hand, implies a separation between the performers and the audience – and it’s this separation that execs are losing patience with.
Trade shows are often seen as an obligation, taken for granted as something you just have to put up with. Too often, organizations don’t really examine whether or not these events are worth the time and expense. But today, as big events get even bigger and flashier, new conversational conferences are springing up to fill the demand for more focused, personal events. When execs get a taste of these events and start seeing real results, they begin re-thinking all the “shows” on their calendar.

Big names

Let’s face it, trade shows can be expensive. For example, one exhibitor spent over $150,000 to attend CES in 2013, as reported by Inc. The irony is that conference organizers feel the need to use big name keynote speakers and special entertainment in order to justify these expenses for attendees, but the people who actually attend these events really come for the one-on-one conversations and new partnerships that foster community and collaboration.

New wave

That’s why this new wave of smaller conferences is stripping away the flash in favor of a format that facilitates real conversation among peers. This more personal model means connecting with more new clients, suppliers and partners, and a better ROI overall. So before deciding whether to attend the next event, ask yourself these questions:

  1. How much of the program is actually devoted to presentations? The most valuable part of a conference is the time between the presentations, when you can spend time discussing with colleagues and developing new partnerships and collaborations.
  2. How strict are the entry criteria for attendees? Selective, invitation-only events tend to be more valuable, focusing on quality over quantity.
  3. If the conference offers to cover your travel and expense, what do they want in return? For example, will you be required to go through a sponsor speed-dating session? Be wary of obligatory events—meeting interesting new solutions providers should be a benefit, not a chore.


Even if you’re not paying to attend (but especially if you are), it’s time to start thinking about your time and whether or not a conference is worth it. The CESes of the conference world will always be around but if you think that you should be the “showcase” at conferences, then these big, splashy events should take a back seat to the new conference model emerging: small, tailored events where vetted peers can converse and collaborate—putting all those attending on the “center stage” of your industry’s innovation.

BuyerForesight will be hosting the second Common Sense Customer Experience Marketing event, October 14-16 at The Westin Michigan Avenue, Chicago IL. Each session of this invitation-only event is a conversation, not a presentation – no podium, no stage, no PowerPoint. Attendees will dig into real-world use cases and ask hard questions about the biggest problems in CX today. And this is only one example of Common Sense events.