RSA Sees Record Numbers, Marks Comeback of IT Security Tradeshows

Sandra Toms LaPedis looks remarkably serene on the eve of the 14th annual RSA Security Conference, considering she spent her whole year planning the event. But as she inspects last-minute preparations, she will admit to that slight twinge felt by anyone who has ever thrown a party.

"You still wonder," she says. "Will anyone come?"

Yes. In record numbers.

A new high of 13,000 people attended the show at the San Francisco Moscone Center this week, and RSA is not alone. Surprisingly, most high-tech shows have survived in this era of obsessive cost-cutting, and many report rebounding -- even record -- attendance.

Once the ultimate status symbol for tech companies, trade shows have adapted to leaner times by changing their focus, planning and staging. But they have also survived because even in an industry pushing new technology breakthroughs, meeting someone in person is still the best way to learn, network and make a sale.

"There's something about engaging people face-to-face," said David Korse, president and CEO of IDG World Expo, which produces 20 technology shows, including LinuxWorld and Macworld. "And it didn't go away in early 2001 when the tech bubble started to burst."

Started in '92

The RSA event started in 1992, when 50 cryptographers gathered in the Hotel Sofitel in Redwood City to discuss trends in mathematics that related to computer security.

By 2001, the show was attracting 10,000 people. It had evolved into an industrywide security show, where Pat Benatar sang a reworked version of one of her old rock hits: "Codebreaker."

Then the bubble burst. And Sept. 11 hit. Corporate travel budgets shriveled. The high-profile Comdex show collapsed under its own size and breadth. Other shows, such as RSA's, saw attendance fall.

Yet 1,200 tech trade shows were held in 2003 -- about the same number as in 2001, according to the Center for Exhibition Industry Research in Chicago. These tech events survived because they were so narrowly focused on a company or technology.

Still, event managers felt the pinch as companies became more choosy about which shows to attend and how many people to send.

"Companies are going to less shows," LaPedis said. "but they're trying to make the ones they go to count more."

Shows like RSA are taking note. The key is showing exhibitors and attendees that their time and money are well spent.

LaPedis declined to disclose the annual budget for the show. However, the cost of such shows can run into the millions. In RSA's case, 60 percent of the budget is covered by sponsor and exhibitor fees, while the rest comes from attendee fees.

To bring greater focus, LaPedis started producing the show full time instead of part time. RSA hired outside event production company Nth Degree of Georgia to help.

The show has a solid core of longtime attendees, and security has remained a hot topic. But its bigger size means it needs an even stronger emphasis on the type and quality of educational programs.

The planning for each show starts more than a year in advance. At last year's show, RSA had already selected the theme for this year: "The Codes of the Prohibition." The theme is reflected in a giant art-deco city skyline on the stage as well as RSA's booth, a replica of a speakeasy.

Prepping the presenters

The show has 370 speakers this year. The 17 presenters who received the lowest marks last year were required to work with a presentation consultant. Another 71 could take the service if they wanted.

RSA has started using a new online social networking program that helps like-minded attendees find each other -- a kind of trade show Friendster. There are longer breaks between sessions to allow for more chatting in the halls.

They've also set up special VIP lounges for long-term attendees. But they've all but backed off splashy entertainers.

"Entertainment is good," said Robert Lowe, conference architect for Nth Degree. "But too much entertainment in this day and age, and the attendees know they're paying for it."

The changes on the exhibition floor are subtle. More goodies like food, a video game area and a Microsoft exhibit are set in the back to lure attendees all the way through.

Trade show associations also report that companies are using lighter materials to build booths, sometimes just a mixture of lights and fabric to save money. Booth models at many shows have fallen out of favor. And exhibitors are getting stingier with tchotchkes because they attract too many attendees who are just there to collect the goodies.

The growing use of customer management software is helping exhibitors track more leads from trade shows. RSA has also joined a growing industry movement to have its attendance figures and other statistics audited by an outside firm, for more credibility with companies.

Other event managers have begun experimenting with badges that include a chip that emits a radio signal. Event planners can track and get instant feedback from attendees, and attendees can find each other. But the technology also raises privacy concerns, and RSA is not using it.

LaPedis is already focused on next year's show. The theme has been selected (it involves a type of mathematics from India and a Hindu goddess). And LaPedis' team will be trying to get as many attendees and exhibitors as possible to sign up for next year's -- the single best barometer of how well they've done this year.

"It's funny, because I never even enjoyed attending trade shows before," said LaPedis, formerly an attorney. "It's a weird way to make a living."