Networking & Communications

Rant: The Sordidness of Tech Expos

I’ve just had a rather sordid encounter that left both of us feeling rather degraded. Again. I’m not proud of myself, but I have this urge that needs to be satisfied. So every now and again, I find myself in Amsterdam, negotiating the narrow walkways and hiding amongst the crowd of like-minded cruisers, sneaking a glimpse of the ladies at the shop fronts making an exhibition of themselves. We look but we desperately try to avoid eye contact with them – or indeed the men who lurk in the background.

I say Amsterdam, but it could equally be one of my other regular haunts in London’s Docklands, or Earls Court or Las Vegas. Or indeed, the NEC in Birmingham. Anywhere there is a technology Expo basically.

Yes, I’m talking about the sordid spectacle of IT Expos. (What did you think I was on about?) These transactions demean us all, but we continue to submit to them, because they appeal to mankind’s most primitive urges. The need to press the flesh and exchange solutions.

This morning I received an email inviting me to three of these events: IP Expo, Cyber Expo and Data Centre Expo. 

God, I hate them – but not as much as I despise myself for going to them.

It doesn’t have to be this way, of course.

There is a fundamental human need for people to get out of their office and meet people in the same industry. We all like fresh ideas and benefit from new perspectives. We like to socialize and make human contact. I’m all for that. But why do we have to replace one grim environment – the office – for an even more constrained set of circumstances?

The technology industry creates so many creative options. It’s the unimaginative way that technology is used that lies at the heart of my disappointment. Yes, I know technology companies all have shareholders. And yes, the money people tend to be very conservative and cautious. But surely an Expo is the one occasion when they can really let their hair down and get creative. The investors won’t know so they won’t mind.

You would expect IT and communications people to be pretty good at conveying information wouldn’t you? Not if the trade shows are a typical example of how they work. Despite spending a small fortune on their stand, the exhibitors are always happy to allow visitors to waste hours wandering around between identical, unlabeled units. Would it kill them to put a clear number on every a stand? How hard is it to paint “Aisle A” on the ground, so that people could negotiate their way round more efficiently? What about some road signs? You know the type of thing: “Cisco stand 2 blocks”. Good grief, if this is how they handle human traffic, it’s no wonder the nation’s IT networks are chock a block.

By the time you make it to the stand (having scuffed your new shoes on one of the several pointy corners that jut out from every one of these aluminium deathtraps), the person you were supposed to see has usually given up the ghost and disappeared. So you’re then forced to amuse yourself with the usual standard offering of stress balls and boiled sweets while you wait for your contact to be “brought to ground”. (They use the oddest metaphors at these shows too. What is a ball park figure anyway?)

There’s a whole universe of crazy knick knacks that are only one click away on For two of three clicks, you can find a manufacturer to custom-make anything that your imagination is capable of dreaming up. And yet, nobody can see beyond rubber stress balls and boiled sweets. Come on IT marketing people, show some imagination.

Meanwhile, your contact is in one of the several hideaways for different types of people who attend. He or she will be in the Exhibitor area, drinking from a pot of stewed coffee. We journalists, meanwhile, will be found huddling for warmth in the press office, where the lukewarm caffeine solution will have been fermenting even longer. Others will be in the VIP Area (which is their way of telling the rest of us that we’re Not Very Important People).

If you do “Step up to the plate” (as people keep urging us to in presentations) you’ll find the options are usually a plate of crisps or a tuna sandwich that several people seem to have already examined thoroughly and rejected.

When you do finally make contact, the interview part is the most disappointing exercise of all. After an hour of being on a stand, most exhibitors become dehumanized, to the point where they barely listen to you. Even when they stop talking, they’re not taking in what you say, but mentally rehearsing what their next speech is going to be. And since they’ve already repeated it several times by the time you get to meet them, they’re going to deliver it at breakneck speed.

Just once, I’d like an exhibitor to display some imagination. Make it a policy to make all conversation two way. That way you might find out what the visitor to your stand actually needs, before you tell them what technology can help them. Ask the visitor lots of questions about themselves. Give them a decent drink. Be a bit more creative about your stand’s design.

I might be peculiar, but I’d love to visit a stand that was designed to look like a police station. The people on the stand would be dressed to look like detectives, and they’d haul you into a room and start firing questions at you, while shining a spotlight into your face. One would be a hard-nut bad cop who didn’t believe anything you said. (“Don’t give me that nonsense chummy, we both know why you were in the cloud that day”). Meanwhile his partner would be the good cop, whose sympathy would make you trust her, so you end up signing whatever documents they put under your nose.

OK, you might think that’s a bit brutal or even odd. I agree. But I’d still prefer it to the usual IT EXPO experience. At least they give you a decent cup of coffee in a police station.





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Nick Booth

Nick Booth worked in IT in the UK’s National Health Service, financial services and The Met Police, witnessing at first hand the disruptive effects of new technology. As a journalist and analyst, his mission is to stop history repeating itself.

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