"How's your show been?" It's the trade show equivalent of "How's the weather?" It's a pleasant conversation starter. Small talk. This year at CTIA's Super Mobility Week, however, it took on a new significance. After losing momentum to the GSMA's Mobile World Congress, CTIA invested a lot of time and money into making its new event – Super Mobility Week – into something that got people excited…and got them to attend. It merged two shows into one. It pulled together a bunch of diverse organization and partnered events. It did everything it could to make Super Mobility Week a success and people were naturally curious about the results.
I'd say about half the people I talked with (including myself – yes, I do talk to myself) said the show went well. They felt the attendance was solid and customer engagements meaningful. Another 25 percent seemed to be reserving judgment until the show was done with the remaining 25 percent being negative. Aggressively negative. It was as if these people felt personally offended at being duped into coming to Vegas to a show where many key vendors and operators were absent and they just couldn't get the types of meetings they wanted. I'd like to say, "I get it," but I don't. Save for the handful of people who had never been to a show before, this attitude just doesn't make sense. It ignores a few things we should all be able to agree on.
· There's a Reason They're Called Tradeshows. Pop quiz. What do the first five letters in "tradeshow" spell? That's right – "trade" as in "business." Trade shows are about getting business done. That means meeting with current customers, former customers, prospects, suppliers, etc. If your customers told you they'd be at Super Mobility Week but didn't show, congrats – they probably feel like they owe you one. If you went just hoping or assuming they'd be there, well, that was probably a mistake. There's a larger point here though. If you think Apple and T-Mobile stole CTIA's thunder last week with everything they did up in San Francisco, you're off-base on the purpose of the show. New product launches and innovations are one component, but only one.
· You Probably Didn't Need To Be At The iPhone Launch. I know we didn't all show up in Vegas to close deals. Maybe your business card reads "business development" or "product management" or "strategy" or "analyst." In that case, you probably came to get a handle on industry trends or customer demands. Could you get that done at Super Mobility Week? Sure. Whether it involved booth hopping or session sitting, there were plenty of opportunities. Did the iPhone launch (or Uncarrier 7.0, or Intel Developer Forum) complicate things? Maybe. Yes, the new iPhones and everything Apple is wrapping around them are likely to have more impact on the mobile world than anything that came out of Super Mobility Week. Did you need to be in San Francisco to figure that out? Probably not. High-profile service or device launches attract media attention to a show. But if you think they're necessary (much less sufficient) for understanding broader industry dynamics, you are off-base. Again, they are but one component.
· Nobody's Handing Out Money Anymore. Remember the good old days of telecom? You know, back when CapEx trending was encouraging and even minor tradeshows warranted vendor-sponsored concerts by bands you'd actually heard of? Well, there's a reason they call them, the "good old days." Business hasn't been that easy in a while. People generally get that. Nobody expects to hand out t-shirts at their booth and pull in tons of qualified leads. Likewise, nobody should expect to turn up at a show and have meaningful discussions – sales, market trends, etc. – just jump out at them. If you didn't arrive at Super Mobility Week with a full schedule fitting your agenda, it was silly to expect great things to come of it.
None of this is meant to imply that there's no room for improvement come Super Mobility Week 2015. It would be good if the Competitive Carriers Association (CCA) activity was closer to the rest of the action; as much as I love the Cosmopolitan, I didn't get over there as much as I should have. That's a shame since the network and service agendas of the smaller operators are worth paying attention to. Likewise, better cordoning off the accessory and retailed exhibitors from the rest of the show floor would be smart. Snobbery might be at play, but vendors coming to a show to close multi-million dollar deals tend to see the retail crowd as a different space. Oh, and if you're up against something like a new iPhone launch or the latest moves in consumer service innovation, why not figure out a way to take advantage of that? Would a keynote panel discussing the implications of Apple's latest and greatest pack in the people? I suspect so. Likewise, would you attend a panel where other carrier CEOs got to take pot shots at John Legere? I would.
Regardless, when trying to figure out who will be responsible for making next year's event a success (or not), looking inward may be a good place to start – this counts for companies as well as individuals. Start with asking, "what do I need to get out of this show to make it worth my time." Don't show up if it doesn't look like a fit. And if it is a fit? Great. Now, put in the work to make it a success. Or, at the very least, don't complain when you don't.
Peter Jarich is the VP of Consumer and Infrastructure at Current Analysis. Follow him on Twitter: @pnjarich.