Joel Orr Commentary: Farewell to Trade Shows

March 9, 2006
The demise of the CAD/CAM trade show has been slow, but it is now almost complete. SME's Autofact is a memory. Reed's National Design Engineering Show is a shadow of its former self, having lost its footing in McCormick Place, and moved to the trade-show "elephants' graveyard"-Rosemont Expo Center.

Dr. Joel Orr
Orr Associates International

[email protected]

But when I mentioned this to my Cyon Research partner, Brad Holtz, he pointed out that in fact CAD/CAM trade shows are booming, reborn as vendor/user-group events: SolidWorks World, COE, Autodesk University, PLM World are all getting bigger and bigger.

Some of the factors that have contributed to this transmogrification:

  • Trade-show leads are very expensive for vendors. The cost of a booth, travel, and all the surrounding hoopla is substantial. And economic buyers seldom attend.
  • The Web. Much of the motivation for users to attend a trade show was to gather information; that today can be done at one's desk.
  • There are no major or mid-size manufacturing firms that are not already fully committed to a set of CAD/CAM vendors; so there is no need for a "comparison shopping mall."
  • On the other hand, CAD/CAM users are more motivated than ever to get more training on their chosen systems, to see what third-party products are available, and to learn best practices from peers who use the same systems.

And the vendor/user-group event does address an important need of CAD/CAM user firms that had been met by the trade shows: The "reward trip." If you attain a certain position or achieve certain goals, your company sends you to DisneyWorld or Las Vegas, all expenses paid.

What did we lose by this shift?

  • A place to experience, in full multi-sensory grandeur, the competitiveness and one-upmanship of UGS, Dassault Systemes, PTC, and Autodesk. There's nothing like going from booth to booth to get a comparative feel for the field-albeit a subjective one.
  • A forum for exploring issues that transcend a single vendor's product line. Nowadays, issues such as interoperability, collaboration, and integration of CAD/CAM with IT no longer have a proper home.
  • Industry consultants lost some turf. We (I represent this remark) still have networking opportunities at the vendor/user-group trade shows, but those of us who are not platform-specific have far fewer opportunities to "strut our stuff" in seminars, plenary sessions, workshops, and professional-society committee meetings.

What did we gain by this shift?

  • Vendors: Lower marketing costs. Between the Web and customer visits, vendors can do what they need to do to get customers' attention. And while vendors are spending as much or more on their own shows, the audience is captive. The goals are different. There is no competition for attention. Customer relationships can be strengthened, with no fear of distraction by competition.
  • Users: Focused training while learning about "the latest" from both the main vendor and third parties.

Will the trade shows be back? I doubt it. They were fun while they lasted. But the market vectors have brought us to where we are today, and in the more-intense competitive environment of today, trade shows are just too expensive to put on.

Joel Orr has been consulting, writing, and speaking about engineering software for more than three decades. Visit his website at

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