The evolving trade show
Jeffrey Chappell, Electronic News - July 1, 2004
Last spring's Semicon Europa trade show in Munich was notable not so much by who was there but by who wasn't: Applied Materials, the world's largest capital equipment vendor. Although it decided not to exhibit, the company partially subsidized a section on the show floor where companies could pitch products and discuss technology developments. Still, Applied's decision not to set up a booth, when it usually has a massive presence at the Semicon shows, is indicative of how the trade show and its role in the business is changing—particularly when one factors in that the industry is in the middle of an upswing.
One expects companies to cut marketing budgets during a downturn. For example, ATE vendor Credence Systems, traditionally known for its lavish parties at both Semicon West in the summer and the International Test Conference (ITC) in the fall, opted not to throw parties the last couple of years. In the case of ITC, it opted to host what it called a "virtual booth"—space on its Web site where it presented all the information it would normally have made available to its customers at a conference. Even Credence's ATE competitors complimented the idea.
But it's more than just a matter of cyclicality and economics, as Applied's decision demonstrates. The role of trade shows, and how companies approach them, is changing, at least in the realm of capital equipment, process technology and ATE. For many established companies, the trade show is no longer the place to put wares on display and wait for customers to come around to kick the tires, metaphorically speaking. Rather, it provides a time and place for vendors and customers to get face time with another and do business in person, rather than through teleconferencing and e-mails. One reason behind this is that many chip makers aren't buying process tools off the shelf; they require tools and processes customized for their particular products. Furthermore, in this world of increasing—and increasingly expensive—technological challenges that require companies to partner, the trade show is becoming a venue for the exchange of information; the lines between trade show and technical conference are blurring.
And a big fancy booth with big chunks of polished metal sitting around, along with tchotchkes, doesn't facilitate this.
"We know that the trade show is a little bit sensitive to industry cycles, but clearly there is greater attention to return on investment," says Jonathan Davis, vice president of communications at Semiconductor Equipment and Materials International (SEMI), which puts on the Semicon trade shows around the globe. With members large and small, SEMI has been trying to make everyone happy and to let its trade shows evolve with the times. "We're trying to accommodate the desire to participate, even in alternative ways," he says. SEMI is offering what it calls a "turnkey exhibit booth," a prefab booth, available in several configurations, that's more economical than building a booth from scratch.
SEMI is also working with members that want to sponsor events at the trade show, rather than have a booth on the show floor. One such company is ATE vendor Agilent Technologies. In the past, Agilent has maintained a large presence on the show room floor at Semicon West, among other trade shows, but it has decided to take a different approach this year.
The decision not to exhibit wasn't a financial one, stresses Sherry Scholer, director of global communications for Agilent's automated test group, who serves on SEMI's marketing committee. Deciding that it still wanted to be visible, Agilent sponsored a panel discussion and keynote speeches and partially sponsored the traditional SEMI President's Reception. Scholer agrees that customer contact—but not necessarily of the tire-kicking variety—has become the focus of the trade show. A lot of customers are using the Web to garner information, she says, and come to the trade show prepared; these customers need more time for individualized discussion.
Take competitors LTX and Agilent. LTX was the first ATE vendor to embrace the single-platform concept and has eschewed trade show booths for some years now, seemingly ahead of the curve, opting instead for one-on-one customer meetings, technical papers and panel discussions. Agilent has a single, scalable platform that at its core remains the same; what does change is the applications involved. That's what customers come to discuss, according to Tom Pritchett, ATE group marketing manager for Agilent. The metaphorical tire kicking may not take place at trade shows anymore, but as Pritchett says, "The tires themselves have changed."