For as long as I can remember in attending the American Bar Association’s annual TECHSHOW conference, one constant has persisted: the prominent presence in the exhibit hall of Thomson Reuters or its predecessor West Publishing Company. This year, that will change. When TECHSHOW opens Feb. 27 in Chicago, Thomson Reuters will not be among the exhibitors.

Thomson Reuters confirmed this week that it will not exhibit at TECHSHOW this year. Last year, it spent $137,000 to exhibit at TECHSHOW.

Even so, this is not a threat to the viability of TECHSHOW, sources familiar with the conference said. In recent years, TECHSHOW has seen growth in both the number of vendors who participate and the number of legal professionals who attend. Information provided by the Law Practice Division after last year’s show said that it was the most successful ever in both revenue and attendance.

‘Re-Evaluating All Trade Shows’

So why is Thomson Reuters pulling out?

Michael Abbott, vice president of global thought leadership and of the Legal Executive Institute at Thomson Reuters, is the executive who was responsible for the company’s decision not to exhibit at TECHSHOW this year.

Over the past year, he said, TR has been re-evaluating all trade shows it attends to consider how best to engage with the customers who attend those shows. “As we start to think about how best can we engage with the customers, this is one where we thought we’d go in a different direction,” he said.

TR participates in a number of trade shows and spends a large number of dollars in doing so, he noted. It is rethinking its strategy with regard to all of those shows, he said.

“It’s event by event. Some lend themselves to big booth presence. In other situations, we feel we can have more of an impact and engage better with customers through a different approach.” He noted that FindLaw, which TR owns, will still participate in TECHSHOW through an educational session.

In light of recent layoffs at TR, I asked Abbott if TR’s exit from TECHSHOW reflected belt-tightening within the company.

Abbott said this decision had nothing to do with belt-tightening and no relation to the layoffs. The process of re-evaluating trade shows began over a year ago and was reflected in the company’s scaled-down presence last year at Legalweek in New York.

The same process of re-evaluation led TR to increase its presence at the last CLOC conference, in order to engage more heavily with that audience, he noted.

Abbott said this decision should not be viewed as TR abandoning its relationship with the ABA. He said that TR is already working with the Law Practice Division and with the ABA more broadly on other projects for 2019.

I also asked Abbott whether TR’s decision at all reflected its opinion of TECHSHOW as a conference. He said that no discussion of that kind ever entered into TR’s internal conversation about exhibiting at TECHSHOW. The decision not to exhibit there this year does not mean it will never exhibit there again, he added.

Ongoing Reassessment

Christy Burke, founder and president of the marketing and public relations firm Burke & Company, said that, in her experience, vendors are constantly reassessing the shows they attend.

The cost of exhibiting at a trade show is easily $50,000 and can sometimes be well over $100,000. For many companies, that is a major investment, she said. Besides the exhibition fee, there is the cost of the booth and all its furnishings, there are travel costs for its employees, and there are ancillary costs for parties and entertainment.

On top of that, the time those employees spend standing around the booth is time they’re not spending on other, possibly more productive activities. “If their people are standing around with nothing to do, it’s like watching your investment go up in smoke,” Burke said.

While not commenting specifically on TECHSHOW, Burke said that some conference organizers do better than others at making it worthwhile for exhibitors to participate. “If you only think of attendees as customers and don’t think of vendors as customers, that’s missing a big part of the story. They’re both your customers.”

“There are shows that are excellent at really considering the interests of the vendors,” Burke said. “They’re having events in the exhibit halls, they include vendors in announcements and promotional materials, they have staff who come by and thank the vendors during the show.”

Another factor influencing vendors’ decisions about whether to exhibit at a conference is that there are increasing varieties of options for them to reach customers, particularly through vehicles such as social media, webinars, public relations, and other forms of online thought leadership.

“If you only have X dollars in your marketing budget, maybe you want to put that money in a social media campaign where you’re creating thought leadership, rather than attending at conferences,” Burke said.

“They have to evaluate what’s bringing in business. If there’s no evidence a show is bringing in business, then they have to decide whether to return.”

Surprised by the Move

Kevin J. Vermeulen is managing partner and chief operating officer for Good2bSocial, a digital marketing agency for lawyers and legal companies. In his former role as chief revenue officer and chief marketing officer for the legal publishing company ALM Media, he helped manage ALM’s Legaltech conference and, for a period of time when the ABA contracted with ALM, the TECHSHOW conference.

He expressed surprise that TR had decided to withdraw completely from TECHSHOW and said that he believes it is important for a major company such as TR to maintain a presence at conferences such as TECHSHOW, not just because of TR’s size within the legal industry but also because of the wide variety of products and services they offer to legal professionals.

Vermeulen said that $137,000 is a lot for any vendor to spend on a conference. But rather than cut that entirely, he believes, the better move would have been for TR to reduce its spend on the conference to maybe half and put the savings into other forms of marketing.

“They should still be there,” he said, “to show their support for the conference and for their customers who are there.”

Vendors should view exhibiting at conferences not just as opportunities to acquire new customers, but also as vehicles to maintain relationships with existing customers, Vermeulen said. “If you’re not there, the customers wonder why you aren’t, what’s wrong?”

Too many vendors squander their time at conferences by not properly planning their presence and training their staff, Vermeulen said.

“The problem with most companies going to most conferences is that they don’t know how to do a conference. They don’t do enough pre-show, they don’t do enough during the show, and they don’t do enough after the show to follow-up.”

Vermeulen said he too often sees sales people sitting around their booths with their phones out, emailing and texting, instead of using that time to reach out and engage with attendees. Vendors need to better train their people about how to make the most of their time at a show, he said.

“I don’t think conferences are going away,” he said. “People still need that networking, the shaking of the hands.”

Bottom Line

What’s interesting about this story is that it can be spun different ways. Some will see it as evidence that TECHSHOW isn’t the conference it once was. Others will see it as evidence that TR isn’t the company it once was. In my opinion, it’s evidence that the times aren’t what they once were.

Once, there were only two or three major legal technology conferences. Once, there were only a handful of major legal technology conferences. Once, conferences were one of the best ways to network and to learn about what’s new.

Now, there is a glut of conferences. There is a glut of legal tech companies. And there is a glut of ways to network and keep up with what’s new. In this world, it makes no sense for companies to try to be everywhere. Companies can be targeted and strategic in their marketing. They can achieve more valuable exposure through content marketing and thought leadership than through fancy booths and throwaway tchotchkes.

Trade shows remain important. The networking alone is invaluable. The opportunities for vendors to be face-to-face with customers and for customers to be face-to-face with vendors are invaluable. But must a vendor be present at every event? No. Not anymore.