In The Beginning
Many moons ago I went to my first technology conference – COMDEX. I was overwhelmed by the amount of information, products, announcements and Swag. Oh the Swag; fantastical, magical Swag. Back then, vendors could get grown men to yell, jump around and nearly brawl for a branded tee shirt or hat. Collecting Swag at a conference was akin to the trick-or-treating activities held during the annual holiday of Halloween. This occasion finds children going house to house in an attempt to collect the most amount of candy that they can stuff inside a pillowcase or jack-o’-lantern only to devour the prized booty hours later back at home (unfortunately much as parents winnow down the sugary haul to manageable, non-coma inducing consumption levels I found that my wife would similarly “edit” my Swag collection).
Swag collectors at COMDEX
As an information value proposition, COMDEX was exactly what my eager brain was looking for; loads of geeky interactions and mounds of technobabble. COMDEX was how vendors communicated the Next_Big_Thing and since the Internet wasn’t broadly in use in the early ‘90’s COMDEX was THE place to be.
After I had attended the conference for a few years and had witnessed a massive explosion in conference goers, I noticed something peculiar had clandestinely appeared on the scene. Booth Babes. Not many at first and not too outrageous were their outfits but there they were. Prancing. Posing. Striding the length of their booth space. Flashing glances that were unfamiliar to the common geek. It was a strange accessory for a technology conference to be sure.
Apparently the marketers had struck upon the realization that the vast amount of conference goers were geeky, introverted males. Surely the way to attract these beguiling fellows attention would be to showcase something that was foreign to their daily experience – hot women, live and in close proximity. The ploy worked and like moth to a flame the booths with the best Babes were plenty busy. Budgets for the beloved Swag were hastily slashed and the arms race for the sexiest, most eye-catching females began in earnest. Unfortunately, so too did the downfall of the conference content and mean value. It wasn’t but a few years later when COMDEX was a money-losing proposition for the promoters and was summarily dismantled.
Could it be that the Booth Babe was to blame or was she a cleverly disguised harbinger of the underlying vitality of the conference?
Booth Babe Bubble
I moved onto another venture and another industry conference called E3. The E3 Gaming conferences were like no other I had ever ventured into. Understandably there were folks dressed as game characters. Huge Hollywood style sets constructed to look like the game-come-to-life filled the downtown Los Angeles Convention Center. E3 had loud music, brilliant lights, pounding bass explosions, sharp notes from weapons discharging and digital crowds cheering every Madden™ touchdown. In short it was like being “in the game”. Amazing and awe inspiring, this industry invite only event was a celebration of console candy at its glorious zenith. If any conference was going to be impervious to the deleterious effects of Booth Babes in overdrive surely E3 would be it. But then something incredible appeared; Booth Babes, The Next Generation™. So stunning and partially dressed were these E3 ladies, you could have just as easily found them gracing the covers of Maxim magazine.
Sun Tzu would have been proud of how the marketing teams from each of the game developers went to battle to locate and secure the finest talent; there were national tryouts, leaked videos and eventually an entire web site dedicated to these ultimate gamer fantasies in heels (Apologies in advance for the time sink).
What happened to E3 over the next few years, however, was the unthinkable – the Entertainment Software Association ceased to promote the event at the LACC and moved it instead to sets of meeting rooms in Santa Monica, CA. ESA had received too many complaints about the nature of the event and its overt sexual marketing.*
Could the curse of the Booth Babe have struck again? Much like Economic Bubbles; was it possible to have a Booth Babe Bubble?
The Selfish Booth Babe Gene
I am now on the way home from a different conference – CTIA. As I sit and reflect on this long plane ride home I have to think that this event’s value is heading in the same direction as COMDEX and E3 did. This year’s gathering (March 22-24, 2011) in Orlando found a bevy of beauties wondering around spouting insightful quips like “do you want a flyer?”, “oh I don’t know what this company does” (whilst sporting skin tight logo wear), “yea this is some kinda phone show”. Ah the pearls of wisdom, the oh-so-important brand impression moments. In retrospect, I found the attendees talking more about the talent then the value of the show.
Maybe this is the lifecycle of a conference. Maybe what I am witnessing is the selfish gene expressing itself in each new generation of conference, with the conference unwittingly submitting to the propagation of the selfish gene’s will – thou shalt have Booth Babes.
Maybe it’s time to go to SXSW.
*E3 did come back the following year to the LACC but with much stricter enforcement on the dress code.