Anyone who still questions the relevance of the IT trade show hasn’t been keeping up to date with the huge successes that events like Computex, CeBit and the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) have notched up. 

While IT trade shows did experience a dip in the late 1990s and early 2000s – with some, like Sicob and Comdex, never recovering from the downturn – the survivors and the new shows that have sprung up are booming like never before.
The Internet and the ease with which users can find news, information and products in seconds using the World Wide Web could be thought to have made trade shows less relevant than ever. However, the opposite is true.
"Exhibitions give users the opportunity to touch, see, hear and smell products and technology – that’s something they can’t do online," says Jo Melville, MD of Exhibitions for Africa.
Being able to see a range of different product offerings in one place can also help users make informed choices before committing to a particular technology or product, she adds.
"People also visit trade shows for the opportunity of networking with business colleagues, clients or prospects on neutral territory.
"This neutral territory also means that visitors can evaluate new products, services and technologies – and see exactly how one supplier stacks up against its competitors."
For vendors, she points out that trade shows give them the opportunity to be among the companies that visitors evaluate.
It’s also useful for vendors to have a visible presence in order to manage their own branding and image, rather than leaving it to a partner.
"Quite often you’ll find a big vendor doesn’t participate on their own steam but allows a smaller reseller or distributor to carry their messaging to the market.
"The problem is that, often, these representatives can’t answer queries as well as the vendor would.
"Besides which, customers want to speak to the vendor. Everyone wants to have some face-to-face interaction."
In contrast to the normal sales environment, trade shows let exhibitors interact directly with decision-makers, in an environment that is conducive to discussing technology.
Last year (2006), visitors to Futurex & Equip were overwhelmingly from the decision-making echelons of end user companies, with 83% of attendees able to make or influence purchasing decisions.
This trend seems to be reflected worldwide as CeBit also saw 83% of delegates in decision-making or -influencing roles.
Melville explains that Futurex & Equip is carefully timed to reach South African visitors just a few weeks after the giant CeBit show in Germany.
"We’ve always set ourselves up as the CeBit of Africa. In the same way that CeBit itself caters for the international and European market, we help to influence the African market," she explains.
"The timing allows South African companies – distributors and vendors alike – to see what trends, technologies and products come out of CeBit and then bring them to South Africa in time to launch at Futurex & Equip."
Importantly, Futurex & Equip – along with the other successful shows worldwide – is a business-to-business experience rather than just a platform for vendors to reach resellers.
"Futurex & Equip is a business-to-business show – our audience is the end user or the business decision-maker. And to make it easier for him, the show includes various zones."
The zones are included as an additional element to the basic show, which remains largely unchanged year to year. Zones, on the other hand, showcase the technology and products that are "hot" that year and would probably change quite regularly.
In 2007, the zones to be featured include Wireless and Mobile; Engineering Hardware and Software; Talent Management; and Customer Relations.
One of the elements that help to keep Futurex & Equip fresh and dynamic is the fact that a fair number of small companies, often with exciting new ideas and technologies, are represented on the show.
"Our objective is definitely to increase small business participation," says Melville.
She explains that the Trampoline scheme allows small and medium businesses (SMBs) with less than 50 staff members and who haven’t been on Futurex & Equip before, to participate at preferential rates.
"We are calling on big businesses to help their SMB partners by sponsoring their participation in Futurex & Equip on the Trampoline scheme," Melville adds.
The SMB visitor is also being strongly targeted. These visitors are important since as much as 50% of IT spend in South Africa comes from SMBs. But vendors often have difficulty identifying and servicing these companies.
"Exhibitions for African maintains an extensive and active database which tracks all visitors from all of our business-to-business shows. We leverage this database extensively in our exhibition marketing and to encourage visitors."
The SME Survey 2006 found that quality was the prime consideration behind an SME’s decision to buy a product or service, followed by reliability and then only by price.
However, should competing products be on a par, SMEs would make the final buying decision based on price and relationship, which 71% rate as important.
Finally, trade shows remain relevant for the market as long as exhibitors use the opportunity to meet and interface with their customers to the fullest possible extent.
"From this year, we will be sponsoring training for exhibitors at the Johannesburg and Cape Town Futurex & Equip shows," says Melville.
"The aim is to uplift the standard of the exhibitors and so help them achieve a better return on investment. We encourage all exhibitors, but especially those who are new to the show, to take up the training opportunity."
Futurex & Equip will be held from 15-18 May 2007 at the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg.