Most major conferences have an exhibit room where vendors shop their wares, and in the majority of conferences exhibit passes are free. At small conferences, organizers rarely even check for an exhibit pass, because they figure the traffic is good for their vendors. So every time I’m walking down Market Street, I like to wander through the hotels on my route to see if there’s an interesting exhibit floor to check out. I don’t care if it’s real estate, healthcare, beauty products, whatever. If it gives me a window onto a productive market, I’m always curious to see what’s trending.
To me, exhibit floors are the best kind of market? intelligence, and a better use of my time in most cases than any presentation. When you attend a presentation, you’re getting one person’s viewpoint, filtered both by the selection committee for the conference, and the speaker’s own bias. When you trawl the exhibit floor, you get a raw view of what’s driving the market in any given industry. Who’s showing up to sell what products? Who’s going big with a huge booth, and who’s showing up on the fringe? How are companies positioning their value proposition? What products stand out and why? I’m more interested in the raw data than any one expert’s interpretation, and I take time to talk to booth vendors, and to hear their impressions of what’s driving their market.
At Dreamforce this year, at least five companies showed up pitching gamification–three of them dressed in identical referee shirts and slinging football-themed swag. That suggests to me that gamification is a low barrier-of-entry space and vendors are jumping in quickly to try and grab a foothold. I’d be willing to bet next year no more than one of those companies will be back, even though I think there’s a lot of room for gamification to grow. At a much smaller financial industry marketing conference I stumbled on at the Palace Hotel, I discovered a small vendor with a brilliant CEO pitching an innovative content management plugin for CRM. His approach gave me some great ideas that have bubbled up into our Attune product. Day after day, week after week, these industry snapshots and insights are literally sitting out in the open for the taking.
If you’re looking for new ideas this year or want to practice spotting trends, try crashing conference exhibit halls. Swimming in raw data is often better at sparking inspiration than any packaged presentation.