by Noel Ward, Managing Editor of WhatTheyThink.com's Trade Show Coverage and Executive Editor of OnDemandJournal.com November 5, 2003 -- At the end of the day last Wednesday, Xplor 24 in Atlanta emptied out and everyone made their way out of Atlanta toward home. Many carried with them lingering questions and doubts about the show and what the relatively thin attendance portends for the future. That there is uncertainty about the show's future is probably an understatement. On the one hand, most vendors I spoke with at the show and since last Wednesday say it was a good show in terms of leads. It seems that while attendance is down (I am yet to hear final numbers from anyone), the overall “quality” of the attendees was generally felt to be quite good. In trade-show-speak this means the bodies coming into the booths were reasonably qualified buyers and over the three days combined to make some good prospecting lists. This is part of a trend that has arisen since the economy went on vacation, in which print providers attend shows only if they need to investigate something specific and to send only key decision-makers, influencers--or the guy who signs the checks. Not a bad policy when you think about it. It seems these types were the ones who came to Xplor--and GraphExpo, for that matter. On the other hand, many vendors are less than pleased that the next iteration of the conference will be in Dallas, Texas, a mere five days after GraphExpo closes in Chicago. The jury is out on whether the vendors who have large machines to transport will be at both shows. Many firms have only one set of equipment that travels to multiple events. The processes of transportation, set-up and tear-down, combined with the intransigence of your average trade show union slacker makes one wonder just how much heavy equipment is likely to show up in Dallas. But how much amount of equipment influences attendance is open to debate. I've always liked going to Xplor. Its conference sessions often make it one of the more interesting shows in the industry and it should not be allowed to go away. But it is in dire need of change. I truly believe it is headed in the wrong direction and if it continues on the current path it will be but a memory within a year or two. Which brings me to the point of this final column, which I pose as constructive suggestions about how to adjust Xplor to the realities of the industry today and the prevailing attitudes about trade shows. • Return to a focus on education and make Xplor more of a conference and less of a trade show. Start getting session tracks lined up early and focus on getting in a rich mix of vendors, analysts, and especially the data center/service bureau/direct mail/in-plant people who actually do the work the vendors and analysts talk about. Make it a knowledge expanding event. • Shrink the show floor in Dallas. Get rid of the booths and make it a pipe and drape show. If people want to see equipment, let them go see it at GraphExpo. The largest exhibitors at Xplor (Pitney Bowes and Bowe Bell&Howell) would spend far less money by giving some key prospects a trip to GraphExpo. For that matter, consider paying the penalty fees at the Dallas convention center and put whole the show in a hotel. Since software companies are likely to be the big exhibitors in Dallas, how much floor space is needed? Most vendors will probably love it. And think of the savings on shuttle buses. • After Dallas, take Xplor further back to its roots and make it an educational conference in a couple of big hotels with a very modest vendor area with tables only. Vendors can bring all the samples they want and run all the software they like off laptops and Internet connections but the focus should be on education. • Finally, put the conference in one city that works well for North American and international travelers and stop shuttling it around the country to underwhelming locales like Dallas and Anaheim. • And even though this is probably considered heresy, it's worth taking a critical look at attaching it to another show, such as GraphExpo or OnDemand. I am writing this from Scottsdale, Arizona, where I am attending the GATF Variable Data Printing Conference. This event is a prime example of how focused conferences should be done. There are large open sessions, workshops, breakout sessions, and a “show floor” which consists of tables and basic signage. And all the vendors here--about 20 in all--think it is great and so do the attendees. They are up close and personal with decision makers, can get to any level of detail necessary, and are getting quality leads to follow up on. All for a modest investment and without the burden of drayage, shipping equipment, union bribes, and flying, housing and feeding dozens of employees. It's a lot smaller than Xplor, but it's an easily scalable model that Xplor could easily follow. Then we can keep getting Xplor's unique coverage of this important side of the digital printing market.