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Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Changing times: When things stop working right

Retired specifications writer John Jensen at our CSC Toronto Chapter No Frills Trade Show booth. Attendance and visitor interest have declined in recent years -- I think because the show organizers have not adapted their event to the online communications environment

A decade ago, you needed to wait in line for the opportunity to exhibit at the CSC Toronto Chapter No Frills Trade Show. Exhibitors and visitors packed the hall at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre and show organizers (wisely) capped the number of booths, creating the ideal marketing environment -- the scarcity of opportunity increased the value of the booths for anyone present, and increased demand even further.

About three years ago, however, the slowdown became visible, and last year (for the first time in decades -- the show has been around 31 years), the organizers failed to sell all their booths. This year, even fewer exhibitors participated and (most disturbingly to the show organizers) the number of guests attending the event dropped even more. Exhibitors began packing up their displays well before the official evening closing time.

The show is a voluntary event, and supports the activities of the CSC Toronto Chapter. CSC -- Construction Specifications Canada -- is the Canadian counterpart to the Construction Specifications Institute -- the multidisciplinary organization dedicated to specifications writing. Manufacturers representatives and service providers traditionally have valued relationships with the spec writers because, if your building material or technology is written into the specifications documentation, you are assured of a fair shot at the business, regardless of who actually builds the project.

The marketing challenge for the CSC show committee is to figure out why the show has stopped working the way it succeeded in the past. I had several conversations with show organizers through the afternoon yesterday to explore the possible reasons for the show's difficulties, and then to see if we can find solutions.

Show organizers say part of the issue is industry consolidation and (more importantly) the fact that manufacturers representatives are covering much larger territories. As well, fewer students attended than in previous years -- this could relate to the slightly later show starting time and the nearness of the show date to exams.

But I think the bigger issue -- and challenge for the show as for other conventional businesses and events -- is the generational shift in technology and the powerful impact of online resources and methodologies on industry practices and relationships.

Specifications writers, for example, today can access virtual libraries online; in fact many are working in the BIM (Building Information Modelling) space. As well their communications and relationships are developed and maintained much more online.

The show organizers, it seems, promoted their event with some limited on-line publicity (one marketing piece sent by a co-operating publisher, unfortunately contained the wrong email contact information), but the entire framework of the show and is general approach to promotion is similar to the past, with more conventional publicity and mailings.

But I don't think just "some online marketing" is all that the show needs to thrive. More, the show organizers need to recognize the changes in the thought processes and business methodologies of specification writers and the organizations wishing to sell to them.

I'm more convinced than before that online media are the primary entry points for developing and maintaining relationships; but that print media, shows, and other resources are no less important in the marketing picture. You however, need to truly connect online first and frame your marketing approaches around the electronic resources, including blogs, great websites, relevant social networking sites and Internet forums, and permission-based email marketing (not spam!)

There are generational aspects here -- young people generally have caught on to the new way of thinking, but I and many others with quite a bit of grey hair also have been able to adapt and embrace the Internet.

My advice to the CSC Toronto Chapter show organizers: Think interactive, think electronic, and think year-round. Then the event will recapture the imagination of younger people and others wishing a useful resource for specification and building technology information.

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