This will likely get me in all kinds of shit, but …
I was in New York this week for the first part of what has been invented, branded and built up as New York Digital Signage Week, moderating a couple of panels and eating and drinking up a storm at various social gatherings.
The whole event week thing has always left me with thoroughly mixed feelings, and I know from conversations I had this week and leading up to it that those feelings are shared by a bunch of people.
The week – a series of events sprinkled through four or five days each fall – is a very efficient way for people who sell stuff or provide services in this industry to see a bunch of business partners in matter of a few days, in one place.
But the week is also – largely – a bunch of social events built around the core of conferences, some big, some small and some modestly related, and some product showcases by display vendors. In the space of two or three days, you will see the same business development and sales people at five or 10 breakfasts, lunches, dinners and cocktail parties.
There is, in short, a lot of “you again” stuff happening. On one hand, attendance can be counted in the 1,000s for the various events. But the reality is there is a whole pile of duplication (same people at many events), and the real attendance is more likely in the hundreds if you parse out people at showcases who don’t “do” signage and much of the big crowd at the DPAA Video Everywhere conference, which is dominated by out of home media people who would know precious little about digital signage, and be totally at peace with that.
That said, 100s of industry people getting together is not a bad thing, at all, and Adrian Cotterill, the ascerbic Brit who put together and drives this week (and one, separately, in London) has done a remarkable job with his business partners of building #NYDSW into a thing over the space of a few short years. It has a brand, a structure, a printed publication, and no end of promotion via social and online channels.
Full credit and big hat tip for making a substantial something out of what started as a two or three tenuously-related events. But it is also a core business for Adrian, and it is squarely in his interest to promote the hell out of this thing in exchange for sponsor dollars, and registrations for his investor event. The “week” was cleverly, cagily invented by Adrian, borrowing on the idea of fashion weeks and ad industry weeks in big cities,
I get asked, every year, if I am going, and whether the people asking me should go. I always say I am only going because of speaking/moderation commitments. I tell the people asking me that they should consider their reasons and not go just because other people are going. Which absolutely happens.
If they are in digital OOH, then yes. The DPAA Video Everywhere thing is media people talking in agency-speak, but if that’s what you do, there’s much to learn (though I never understand some of the sizzle/novelty stuff with speakers who are entirely unrelated to the ad business).
Digital OOH uses digital signage technology, but it’s a very different animal in many respects to digital signage for retail, education, corporate and other verticals. More than 20 years into this business, we still have some people and companies wrongly labeling what they do – describing activity in DOOH when what they do has zero relation to advertising.
If people are looking for money, they might make a connection or two at Adrian’s long-running investor summit or merchant banker Mark Boidman’s always-jammed party. One bagged meeting with a VC could turn a $2,500 NYC trip expense into a $15M raise. But it’s a big could …
People will definitely learn stuff at the DSF Coffee and Controversy event, but it’s a couple of hours one morning, not a full day. I have moderated that event for the last two years – hence my presence in NYC – but as good as it is, I could not cost-justify traveling just for that.
Attendees will see, through the week, new gear at major product showcases by NEC and LG, and minor ones by companies that have offices/showrooms in NYC. But the big display guys, at least, do showcases in numerous cities through a year, and others do road shows in cities with companies like Almo. NYC in October is NOT the one chance in a year to see new stuff, and fall is not necessarily a big time for commercial product launches. The big guys wait for CES in January and ISE a month later.
Mostly, attendees will see many of the same people at a whole bunch of social functions. Which is fine. I have a LOT of industry friends and I don’t see them all that much, so that’s fun. But I don’t need to see them at three or four things a day, for three or four days. As noted earlier, there’s a lot of You Again stuff happening.
If I was the CFO of a company with a limited marketing and travel budget, I’d want more, better reasons for why my people need to be in NYC for several days. One of the challenges trade show operators have with Las Vegas is the reticence of CFOs to OK trips to Sin City, because of their suspicions, right or wrong, about motives and real benefits.
In many respects, my biggest issue with the week is cost and effort. NYC is insanely expensive, for everything, and also very hard to navigate. Getting to and from the airports is hard. The sidewalks are jammed. The subway stations are disgusting. Uber and Lyft goes to surge pricing fast. Hotels are 2X and 3X, or more, the cost you see in most cities. Salads are $15. The local craft beer I had the other night was $14 for a smallish glass. My dinner partner’s glass of Cab was $29.
While very large companies, like the display manufacturers, have massive travel budgets and New York is just another in an endless pile of expense items, the industry is heavily populated by companies who don’t/won’t/really can’t spend $500 a night on so-so hotel rooms, $7 coffees and one of those $15 salads.
I stay in Brooklyn so I can control costs, but that means a lot of subway rides and, in my case, a tiny, ruthlessly optimized “Pod” hotel room that has a closet-sized bathroom that doubles as the shower. It’s exceptionally weird. But I’m not paying $500 a night for something all I am going to do is sleep in. Plus I am Canadian, so $500 USD is like $650 CAD for me. Nuts!
The very limited number of companies that have New York offices enjoy the event week being there because, of course, their out of pocket travel costs are minimized and they lose no time on travel. People are coming to them. But in reality, a lot of the key people at these companies don’t actually live there, because they’re not hedge fund managers and can’t afford being in a city where the average 1-BR apartment is $3K a month and nice and larger ones are waaaaaay more expensive.
This is not a criticism of the week or the job done by Adrian and his team. There is more to it than I’d have imagined happening. And some people I spoke to confirmed that they get value, because they get a lot of partner/supplier touches in 3 or 4 long days.
They will also confirm there are few to no buyers at all these things, though I did get introduced to one guy from a traditional sign company looking at expanding to digital. So, one person in three days (not that I was looking for clients or have stuff to sell, other than advice).
The industry, absolutely, has a need to gather in a common place. Digital Signage Expo serves that role, to some degree. But that’s an event that lives or dies based on attracting and bringing in buyers. It can’t survive being, in effect, a Rotary-like convention for the digital signage vendor/provider ecosystem. Vendors at DSE are also focused on buyers, day and night, and they’re doing networking with industry colleagues only if dinners with customers or prospects didn’t come together.
So something is needed, somewhere. I just don’t think it needs to be a week in one of the most expensive/crowded/insane places in the world. It would be totally fine, I think, being two or three days in a central “fly-over” city like Minneapolis or Kansas City or Dallas – with a few key events and some targeted education. Easy to get to. Easier to get around. Nowhere near as expensive.
But that is very unlikely to happen, for all kinds of reasons.
Thank you to the companies who put things together, and kindly fed me and plied me with free drinks, nibblies and entertainment. I know from direct experience that putting on events is hard, hard work.
It will perhaps be suggested by observers that I am hypocritical, given 1) I show up at events and find the bar, and 2) I hold a BIG cocktail party ahead of DSE each year. But that DSE mixer dates back more than a decade to a time when there were very, very few unofficial events, and as hard as I try to not do it anymore, many people insist I have to (I can produce witnesses). I was also doing mixers in Toronto as far back as 2007 as a means of encouraging networking.
We’ll see if I am back at the NYC thing. New York is an awesome place, but not for this …
Safe travels home if you are still there, and good luck when your week’s expenses arrive by forklift.
Dave Haynes is the founder and editor of Sixteen:Nine, an online publication that has followed the digital signage industry for more than 13 years. Dave does strategic advisory consulting work for many end-users and vendors, and also writes for many of them. He’s based near Halifax, Nova Scotia.