One of the yardsticks of success in the trade magazine business is the extent to which publications like O&F support and cover industry events. Therefore, it is a feather in our cap to be able to say that we went from sponsoring one show a couple of years ago to participating in or visiting over a dozen in 2000. But whether any of them should have taken place at all, or were worth the $1,000 or more that registrants forked out, is another matter.

Back in 1999, any event about e-tailing, now matter how flimsy the content or drab the location, was guaranteed to be sold out. Trade show organizers were led to believe that they would be out of a job if their shows didn’t deliver an “e” component. It didn’t matter what the event’s theme was, or whether the exhibiting companies sold moisturizers or plumbing supplies. The whole thing was an unabashed love-fest, with extravagant multimedia displays, expensive freebies (calculators, clocks, Backstreet Boys CDs), and even some edible food for journalists in the press room.

Now, in these days of e-commerce lite, it should come as no surprise that most dot-com conferences bomb just as badly as the businesses that give rise to them. Stripped of technical glitz, the sessions reveal themselves as the self-serving pap they always were, and the desperation in vendors’ voices as they peddle yet another “solution” is pitiful to hear. Sadly, the fallout of cyber greed has depressed other sectors of the economy, as offline companies rein in spending and hunker down for a possible recession. Turnout was dismal at two events I attended last month.

Given the circumstances, you must approach any trade show with caution. In my experience, a conference is a failure if it doesn’t give you three things:

(1) How-to information. Have you been able to walk away with practical tips that you can apply to your own operation? Have the speakers given you detailed, descriptive handouts?

(2) Alternative points of view. Only on rare occasions will you have the privilege of listening to speakers with the courage to espouse unorthodox philosophies and the research to back them up.

(3) High-level attendees. This applies to everyone at the show-industry peers, exhibitors, speakers, sponsors. Forgive me for sounding elitist, but if you’re the vice president of operations at a large company, would you want to spend thousands of dollars and fly all the way across the country to see some skimpy PowerPoint presentations and “network” with 20 vendors from software firms you’ve never heard of?