At work, my department handles the coordination and execution of most of our company’s North American trade show participation. Accordingly, it’s fair to say I’ve attended a few of these shows (and then some). While you might think that trade shows have evolved over the last several years to accommodate changing economic conditions and faster information delivery, surprisingly, I don’t really think they have. Most shows I attend today look a lot like the shows I attended ten years ago, though with smaller exhibits and fewer people. Every year, they shrink before my eyes.

Show organizers in most industries are taking a good, hard look at these events to try to analyze why they are shrinking and how to return them to their glory days. From what I’ve seen, that generally involves beating the drum a little louder, changing locations, and dreaming up catchier headlines. I see registration discounts and impassioned missives extolling the benefits of attendance. They may be changing the wrapping, but what’s inside is still the same.

Here’s how I see the problem. It’s expensive to attend a trade show. It involves travel, lodging, and lost opportunity from being out of the office or the field for a few days. Besides that, people used to attend shows to get information and see new products, to connect with others in their line of work, to get a handle on the big picture. They don’t need that so much anymore. They have an instant information feed via the internet, so by the time a big show rolls around, what was once was big news is already old hat. While the benefits of attending a show once clearly justified the expense, the case is quickly fading.

Or is it?

Actually, I think the reasons people attend shows are still valid: to get information, to connect with others, to get a handle on the big picture. We’re just not giving those things to them in a way that makes their outlay of time and money worthwhile. I think there’s still time to fix that.

For the most part, shows have been about displaying product and hawking services. With information so easy to obtain these days, I believe we need to shift the focus to connecting people. We must offer creative opportunities for industry participants to discuss current issues and solve problems. What if, instead of building a shiny exhibit that gathers dust in a sleepy show hall, would-be exhibitors (singularly or collectively) sponsor workshops and networking mixers built around industry-relevant themes? Pick an industry; I’ll give you a list of potential topics. People could attend as many or as few as interest them. Bring people together who share interests–vendors and customers alike–and give them a chance to share ideas in non-threatening, small group settings. Create opportunities for enrichment. Solve problems. Send people home feeling as if they accomplished something and eager to return the next time.

As show organizers and exhibitors, we continue to offer trade show attendees a shopping mall when a think tank may provide more value. We have to offer something that isn’t readily available anywhere else so that people will seek it out. They have to want to come. While I’m not certain I have the right solution, I do know that doing more of the same isn’t going to bring people back. We keep proving that year after year.