A sure sign of problems on the floor of a trade show exhibit hall is having lots of exhibitors talking to each other.

They are talking to each other because the number of attendees -- the reason they are paying for exhibit booths -- is not keeping them occupied.

This year, vendors who paid for space at the American Institute of CPAs Tech conference and the New York State Society's CPA show at the New York Hilton are wondering just how many duds are left in this year's show calendar.

No matter the official attendance reports, the amount of traffic hitting the floors was not satisfying to a lot of vendors.

There were individual problems. Tech moved from Las Vegas, where it had been held several years in a row, to Austin, Texas, a town that's expensive to get to and doesn't have a lot of major tourist attractions. At the same time, the AICPA, in its move to Durham, N.C., has lost staff that knows how to run a show.

New York suffered from a change in management -- the New York society reclaimed the show from Flagg Management. Several vendors felt the 2006 attendance was half of last year's. That show may rebound in 2007.

Tech is a different story, even if it returns to Vegas. If the only way a show can prosper is to be held in Sin City every year, it doesn't have real value.

Not all shows are suffering. Microsoft's Worldwide Partner Conference was booming and had an exhibit hall that was equally thriving. User conferences are springing up all over the place. The Internal Revenue Service shows are highly successful.

The problem is with general conferences. People understand technology now and don't need the same kind of basic education they once did. Shows that survive on CPE face another challenge -- the Web. It's a lot easier to get education credits and not lose billable time by using the Internet.

General shows are largely outdated. Some will survive, even thrive with reduced attendance. But the formulas of the past aren't working the way they used to. Shows need focus. User and reseller conferences have focus -- the vendor that provides the products used and sold. These shows also provide networking. In the IRS case, they provide access to people who can make decisions.

General shows must change. They must devote time to a few key issues, instead of trying to span all issues. They must make sure there are opportunities for attendees to network.

The types that come to CPA conferences for free pens probably won't show up. But who wants them? People who come to network are serious about their business. They are more likely to buy.

But if all you are handing out is more tips on Excel, or free CPE, that's not going to cut it.

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