Will Trade Shows Survive?S

Seeing Apple pull out of Macworld and hearing talk of poor turnout at CES make us speculate on the future of trade shows—like automakers and newspapers, are they another institution on the endangered-species list?

Apple's cited reason for the withdrawal of Steve Jobs from the Macworld keynote, and the subsequent withdrawal of Apple from Macworld altogether, was that:

Apple is reaching more people in more ways than ever before, so like many companies, trade shows have become a very minor part of how Apple reaches its customers....Apple has been steadily scaling back on trade shows in recent years, including NAB, Macworld New York, Macworld Tokyo and Apple Expo in Paris.

This is true, but I don't think anyone really considers Macworld a "trade show" like CES, CEDIA or IFA.

It's a show, sure, but it's one where Stevie J is the main attraction. Maybe there are a few retail buyers here and there who need to hit up Macworld to see what's hot for Macs, but Apple doesn't really do this stuff for the attention of retail buyers anyway. When was the last time Macworld was a serious forum for independent software and accessories? Macworld will probably die without Apple, but I think it's because Macworld is Apple.

These other trade shows are buckling for different reasons. I can't speak to NAB or AES, which primarily foment business-to-business dealings, and which Apple did in the past support. I can speak to the myriad consumer electronics and computer shows that occur throughout the year, none of which have featured Apple at any time in my memory.

The easiest rationale for the decline of these shows is the current credit crunch and global economic downturn. A crappy economy means fewer awesome toys, one supposes. But even before the current crisis, a few factors were choking trade shows where it matters:

A true trade show is where retailers go to buy their year's inventory. But consolidation of the country's retailers into Best Buy, Amazon, Walmart and some other guys makes it easy for companies like Sony, Samsung, Mitsubishi and more to just set up shop in some sunny beachy spot and fly in the likeliest buyers. (Or, in Walmart's case, for makers to truck a bunch of crap to Bentonville, AR and see what sticks.)

Since showing up at a trade show doesn't threaten that big ole Best Buy order, it becomes optional at best, and an unneeded expense at worst.

The same goes for the media—a large side effect of the show. Companies don't need Macworld and CES to launch product. Sure, it's nice to see devices in person, but they're often mockups, and useless for making real judgment calls.

As fun as it is to rush off after the holidays to some convention center to eat crappy food, lose sleep and swap cold virus strains, the January time frame for Macworld and CES makes no sense for readers of blogs and other media, since they're not looking for new gadgets at that time. Again, retail buyers need to plan ahead, but for reviewers and consumers in the middle of the retail cycle's buying slump, this is more candy than sustenance.

Before the internet was a viable medium, or the CE space was big enough where many companies could spend in the hundreds of millions for mainstream TV/radio marketing, centralized marketing though trade shows was a cheap and easy way to get the news out. Echoing Apple's statement, now that they can get the word out online—and through retail locations and other more innovative outreach programs—spending money on PR and marketing not just to reporters but to millions of actual consumers, the tradeshow take the role of an opportunistic middleman rather than a needed facilitator.

One big threat to US trade shows is the declining value of the dollar. This year and last, we saw more and more stuff debut at IFA in Berlin than we did at NY's summer shows and CEDIA in September, in part because Asian electronics makers are encouraged to sell more to people who pay in stronger currency. CEDIA this past year was fun, but nearly every hot product we went to cover had already been announced in some form or another in Germany.

CEDIA's bread and butter isn't gadgetry, though, like IFA's is. It's really about home-theater components and systems engineered for custom installation inside rich people's homes. In this country, that's still dominated by an association of independent installers (known as, surprise surprise, CEDIA). And those guys have rich customers who don't actually suffer through depressions as much as you'd like them to think.

My guess is that while CEDIA and IFA are safe (for different reasons mentioned above), CES will change and probably shrink, and Macworld will likely die. Soon.