Much like your first date, or first anything for that matter (and I'll stop there), I'm sure many of you remember attending your first trade show. For me, it was in the 1980s at the cavernous McCormick Place in Chicago. Like a kindergartner dropped off by his mother for the first time, I recall being awed and overwhelmed by endless rows of exhibitor booths and their ware-hawking occupants, pulling me in more directions than a car salesman who needs to unload a fleet of aging inventory.

Once they discovered I was a member of the Fourth Estate, I subsequently dodged more bad pitches than a batter with restless leg syndrome.

I also learned that despite a lifetime of gym attendance, there's a bold line between physical fitness and "trade show fitness." Trust me, they are mutually exclusive, as evidenced by a healthy number of foot blisters, reddened toes and aching legs during my early sojourns endlessly strolling trade show floors. But I also thrived on the face-to-face contact, meeting folks who had heretofore been faceless voices on the other end of the phone (this, of course, was pre-BlackBerry) or names included within press releases.

Not surprisingly, I also extracted some of my best stories and forged news sources and professional friendships, many of whom I remain in contact with even today.

I'm regaling you with this nostalgic journey because I feel that the trade show - or, more specifically, many of the accounting shows and even smaller conferences - are gradually being herded into the same pantheon that houses such once-flourishing concepts as Oldsmobile and electric typewriters.

There are a number of reasons behind this, and in fairness, not all of it can be blamed on the poor organization and general ineptness of some show management officials. Although you would have a strong case for that, considering recent state society shows in select Northeastern states, where attendees came disguised as Claude Raines in The Invisible Man.

I've attended three state society shows since May, the last being the Midwest Accounting and Finance Show in Illinois. There were predictable drop-offs in attendance and exhibitor booths, although considering the economy, at least the exhibit halls didn't resemble a haunted house in terms of population.

I've also found through experience that a number of companies regularly choose trade shows as the venue for releasing news or hosting press tours. For example, in Illinois, no less than three vendors chose to unveil new product announcements - Intuit, CCH and SmartVault.

Certainly the economy figures into lower attendance, as have the rising costs of general show logistics, not to mention the often teeth-grinding diplomacy and surprise expenses required to negotiate with the unions in many states. Some folks have determined that perhaps it's not worth the Prilosec to subject themselves to that year after year, or sadly, they recognize the inevitable laws of diminishing returns.

But the shows also have become collateral victims of all things technological. The attendee sweet-spot of most state society shows - the seekers of CPE in a reporting year - can now just as easily select from hundreds of Webinars and related online sessions, instead of ponying up the registration fee and scrambling to get their parking tickets validated at 5 p.m.

So my question remains, are trade shows victims of evolution, or simply the unfortunate collecting plate of a confluence of events led by the economy and tightly compressed work schedules?

I may have to leave it to far brighter minds than mine to figure that one out.

I'll admit I'm probably still not in optimal trade show "shape," but nonetheless I still enjoy the interaction and camaraderie that accompanies professional gatherings.

And try as I might, I don't get the same feeling from a BlackBerry.

(c) 2009 Accounting Today and SourceMedia, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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