Tradeshow Culture, Part 1: Attending

Your basic tradeshow floor. This is part of DAC 2012 in San Francisco.

Believe it or not, David and I were chatting about the weird sub-culture of tech tradeshows a few days before this article hit the streets. Not to worry, we’ll get to that.  But we kinda wanted to talk about the whole experience. You see, David and I used to work together, and we have a history of attending tech tradeshows together. Now, though, we work apart (sad face). And also, we are both on the other side of the tradeshow…its seamy underbelly, encrusted with gum wrappers, gaffer’s tape, and half consumed peppermints.

So, tradeshows are kind of weird.  Let’s look at it from the attendee point of view, shall we? As attendees, you basically fall into one of two categories: a grazer or a hunter.

Grazers aren’t sure why they are there, but they are pretty sure it isn’t an official work day (even though they are getting paid), so they take advantage. Grazers are interested in seeing everything, getting every free piece of swag and marketing slick, and buying nothing. Grazers like to say they have decision power in their company, but they don’t. Not really. Grazers, however, are not valueless, nor is it completely pointless to be a grazer. As a grazer, you have a wider opportunity to see more at a tech tradeshow and your ability to be surprised/excited by something new is much higher. Grazers are also, by and large, more “joyful” attendees.  Genuinely happy to be there, usually, and much more likely to smile at, nay, even talk to, another human be(an)ing.  Grazers truly appreciate the spectacle before them, and will laugh and dance with you and your colored lights. Grazers are more likely to have exploratory conversations with those that work the booths, and everybody walks away happy.  Or, at the least, slightly dreamy and mystified by what just occurred.

Hunters know exactly why they are there. Hunters are working on a project or evaluating a specific branch of tech wizardry, and they have no time for the dilly dally. Hunters have no patience for the marketroids and fluff at the booth that is their current target…they only want an engineer. They have five other engineers to talk to that day, and then they have to evaluate what they have learned. Good hunters take notes. Hunters, however, aren’t always the best type of attendee. Hunters tend to have blinders towards the other tech on display, and overestimate their own opinion. Rarely is a hunter open-minded, and hunters engage in the conversation process poorly at times, since they tend to mistrust any claims made by the obvious shysters working the show booth.  After all, if you work as a sales entity for a manufacturer, you must be a soulless demon spawn from the netherworld, right?

I’ve been both in my career as attendee, as has David (probably). I’d like to think I’m more intelligent than all that, but it isn’t true. I’ve been the poorest example of both hunter and grazer, and maybe the best, too. I’ve treated people working in booths poorly simply because I associate a perceived shortcoming in their product to, what must be, an obvious personal flaw for trying to get me to buy it. I’ve also wasted more people’s time than I feel I should have done, but over all, I have enjoyed my time in trade shows. After all, I have all the Splunk t-shirts and branded Rubik’s cubes to show for it. And I have made tech decisions based on the initial introductions to technology I have seen at tradeshows…some good decisions, some not so good. As with anything, it’s a mixed bag.

There’s a third kind of tradeshow attendee: the job seeker. A tradeshow is a tough place to look for a job, because hiring managers are rarely the ones staffing the booth. But occasionally you find a good match; when searching for my current job I landed two interviews with hardware vendors, although they didn’t pan out. We’ll write another post about job seeking soon; watch this space.


Leave a Comment