Today is the first day of the largest IT conference in our industry. Chief Information Officers and other technology leaders from hospitals across the country have started to arrive in Las Vegas for a week of presentations, networking, and entertainment. I have participated in HIMSS and other conferences in the past in many capacities – as a speaker, as media, as someone doing research on products, and in many circumstances as a vendor using the show to promote our products and services. As our readers are primarily hospital staff, I thought perhaps it would be beneficial to share what it is like attending a conference from the other side of the booth.
As the owner of a consulting firm that attended many different events, what I will always remember about them is the amount of work that goes into having a booth at a large trade show. The week begins with excitement about meeting with current and potential customers and ends with physical and mental exhaustion as the long hours and fast pace begin to take its toll.
Vendors make a huge investment into trade shows. For many vendors attending HIMSS, their presence at the show may be the largest marketing investment that they make each year. There are so many factors of cost to consider. There is the booth itself, both creating an effective and interesting booth display as well as paying for the space on the convention floor. Getting the booth setup and broken down is often also a costly affair as shipping costs can be substantial and most convention centers require use of expensive union labor to move your booth to its location and to complete setup or breakdown. Brochures and other takeaways must be printed, various booth loot for people who stop by must be created and shipped. The cost for travel of staff to the show, hotels, and meals can often exceed the costs for displaying at the event. Then there is the often substantial investment in sponsoring events or providing entertainment and meals to current, and hopefully future clients.
HIMSS is such a big event, with 40,000 people expected to attend and 1,300 vendors, that it can be very challenging for each vendor to stand out and get attention. A large booth in an area with heavy traffic will be a major investment and require significant number of staff to participate. A small booth in a slower area will be a smaller investment, but risks providing minimal return as such as small percentage of potential customers will pass through. Each vendor must decide how to balance the costs with the potential benefits and make sure that their significant investment is maximized and worthwhile.
Tracking success of shows often is also complicated. Large IT decisions are rarely made at trade shows. More often, these shows represent the beginning of the decision making process that could take months or years as CIO’s explore options. These shows are also about connecting with existing customers to show them that you value their business – while every other vendor tries to take that business away from you. Often its not only new business that drives vendors to participate in these events – but also the cost of not attending is considered and the message that it may send to your existing customer base. A booth at a show is a demonstration of a vendor’s commitment to the industry and to be where there customers are going to learn about the changes in the industry.
Vendors will invest significantly in entertainment events – liberally inviting any CIO they can find to dinners or drinks in the hopes of building a new relationship or reinforcing an existing one. These can range from simple dinners to something more elaborate and unique. At one trade show in San Diego, another firm rented a deck on the Midway so that their customers could attend a party on an aircraft carrier. Personally I never valued these events much as a potential customer nor as a vendor, but for many attendees it is a highlight of attending trade shows and for many vendors their largest investment.
I recall at one event my company decided to get branded stress balls. We got the highest quality stress balls we could find – not wanting to give out something cheap but rather something that people would keep on their desk and actually use. They cost us $4 each. I remember being at the booth and having many people stop by because they saw the stress balls from someone else – which was great because it brought more people to the booth. But then people starting coming by and taking handfuls of them without even looking at our booth or talking to us. They made comments about how they could make great chew toys for their dogs or they were getting extra for their kids. As these thousands of stress balls disappeared, it occurred to me that our huge marketing budget was going to, literally, end up in the dog house.
Perhaps the purpose in writing this posting is to send a message to all of you that are attending HIMSS to respect the substantial investment that those on the other side of the booth make into these events. These vendors are directly responsible for most of the entertainment events and meals that you enjoy during the show. Indirectly they are a substantial portion of the show revenue that makes all the education events possible. Take the time to wander through the vendor halls and see what they are offering. You can’t stop at all of them, but choose the ones that you have a genuine interest in rather then those that offer the best chotskis. Choose to attend events for companies that are your business partners to help to support them, or companies with which you have a genuine interest in a business partnership. The best long term friendships and business relationships can come from these events if they are approached properly.
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