One of the early tweets of the year that made me chuckle was by former colleague and independent telecom analyst Dean Bubley. While sunning himself (correction: “attending a conference”) in Hawaii, Dean described mass-scale industry events and shows as “awful zoos.” Having attended many, I must say I agree with Dean.

Yet these events keep growing in popularity. In the first quarter of 2019 alone, four well-known industry conferences in Las Vegas, Catalonia and New York will convene between them just under 350,000 attendees.

Why go to the ‘zoo’ when you can have a nice dinner at home?

This on-going success is surprising because it goes against the findings from the most recent in-depth research into how executives engage with solutions providers. In the 2018 edition of its annual global study on the topic, the Information Technology Services Marketing Association (ITSMA) found that buyers much prefer smaller and private events. This explains the raft of investments from companies in creating customer briefing centers.

In fact, only 15 percent of the respondents to the ITSMA survey said that in-person industry events and trade shows are one of their top three sources of information when researching providers or creating a shortlist of potential suppliers. Smaller, intimate discussions — where new ideas are shaped between suppliers and customers, sometimes even between competitors — score markedly higher.

And it’s not as if turning up in Barcelona for a week in February with a couple of hundred colleagues and a large exhibition stand is cheap. Stories of budgets in the tens of millions of dollars abound.

So, can you measure the return on that investment and therefore the business value of mega-events?

Sure, there is the hype and the excitement. But are the budgets and the energy dedicated to planning and preparing worth it? The short answer for me: not easily. In fact, only last week, one of my clients — who is in charge of global events for a large IT company — was inquiring about the best metrics to measure the success of her participation in the many “zoos.” Experienced as she is, if she’s wondering about that, we should be asking ourselves, “Why turn up at all?”

JOMO, not FOMO

My sense is that the fear of missing out (FOMO) is not just something my teenage daughters worry about and is at the heart of why event delegates want to be there, and why sponsoring companies want to spend the money.

Clearly, you can make a reasoned, business-like and highly plausible argument for being there. I should know; I’ve argued event investment cases on these very points:

  • You’ll make new contacts, observe your competitors, learn something new at a plenary session (and occasionally look a bit silly with a 3D visor on).
  • You might tell your chief executive officer the company can’t afford not to be there. Imagine if a competitor took advantage of that absence to pinch your excellently positioned expo stand, right by the entrance escalator. You’d never get it back.
  • Since the business can afford it, let’s keep on going. It will give us a balanced marketing mix and will keep the sales team happy.

But are these not rational fig leaves hiding personal drivers?

What if, for a change, we took a look at the work of Christina Crook and Barbara Krieger and replaced FOMO by the joy of missing out (JOMO)? It might just possibly make for more rational investment decisions, and we might be more honest with ourselves in the process.