Recently, Tonya and I have attended and spoken at two relatively small Macintosh fairs, BMUG's one-day MacFest in Berkeley and LAMG's two-day MacFair in Los Angeles. Both have been around for a number of years, and both were obviously extremely popular, given the crowds (BMUG's MacFest hit 7,500 in attendance). Afterwards, we found ourselves comparing them favorably to the full-bore Macworld Expos in San Francisco and Boston.
Macworld Expo Overload -- Macworld Expos are no longer as necessary for learning about new products, in large part because the Internet has improved communications about those new products. It's occasionally useful to see a demo, but I can generally learn more in 15 minutes on my own than by watching a typical hour-long demonstration. The conferences at Macworld Expos can be worthwhile, but, since speakers aren't paid, the quality ranges widely. And, let's face it, Macworld Expos are incredibly draining. You're on your feet in a large city for 16 hours a day for three or four days, and there's just too much stimulation. Everyone's shouting, everyone wants you to see their products, try their products, buy their products, and you can't even walk on the streets without having Expo-related brochures shoved in your hands.
Sure, going to a Macworld Expo is a thrill, but many of us have figured out better and cheaper ways to get our thrills that don't involve injury to the lower extremities. At computer shows I'm more interested in meeting people, catching up with email friends, chatting with people who read TidBITS or my books, and generally getting out a little, something us work-at-home types don't do all that often.
The Small Fair Solution -- For those purposes, smaller regional Macintosh fairs turn out to be just the ticket. The show floors occupy the space of a large hotel ballroom, not the dual halls of San Francisco's Moscone Center, which are roughly the size of Rhode Island (and don't get me started about travelling between the vast halls at the World Trade Center and Bayside in Boston). The regional shows have plenty of people, but not so many that your personal space is constantly compromised. It's easy to walk the floor at these smaller shows and spend time at each booth, or to browse through quickly looking for someone. The booths tend to be relatively spartan, which is refreshing after the expensive, often spurious extravagance of Macworld Expo booths. John O'Fallon, president of Maxum Development, concurred, saying, "Putting everyone in a simple 10' by 10' booth without a lot of glitz is nice. It keeps the cost down and lets everyone focus on products instead of stage shows."
Better yet, the booths are often staffed by people who know something, another pleasant change from the well-groomed, yet frequently clueless marketing denizens of Macworld Expos. That's in part due to the preponderance of smaller companies at the smaller fairs, but both shows had representatives from larger companies as well, including Apple. Sheer numbers of vendors don't compare to Macworld Expos, but even still, MacFest sported 43 vendors this year, and hopes to hit 50 next year. My impression was that LAMG's MacFair had even more vendors on its somewhat larger show floor.
The vendors I spoke with afterwards, including folks from Maxum Development, APS Technologies, Sonic Systems, and Dantz Development, seemed happy with the response they'd gotten, although the user group audience wasn't always a perfect mesh. As John O'Fallon noted, "User group members don't buy Internet servers as often as business customers, not surprisingly. We'll be watching for similar small shows with emphasis on business or the Internet. There are several of these we have done already (Mactivity, StrictlyBusiness) with varying degrees of success."
Another nice aspect of the small user group fairs that we attended was that they were inexpensive, not just for vendors, but also for attendees. Conferences can easily cost $200 to $800 these days, and that's before travel and hotel costs. BMUG's MacFest was free to the public, although they requested a $5 donation. LAMG's MacFair wasn't free, but it was inexpensive in comparison with Macworld Expos, which cost may only $25 for access to the floor but $170 for access to the conferences, keynotes and sessions (all of which were included at MacFair). Despite being inexpensive, both BMUG and LAMG were extremely pleased with the financial boost the fairs provided.
Some Thoughts -- I mentioned this topic while chatting at my favorite local Macintosh dealer, Westwind Computing, and the president immediately expressed interest in having a fair here in Seattle. Needless to say, he wasn't up for organizing it on his own, but volunteered on the spot to help line up vendors. With some coordination from dBUG, the local Macintosh users group, and the local Apple office, a small local Mac fair in Seattle isn't inconceivable. And, if BMUG and LAMG can put on these kind of fairs, and merely mentioning the possibility in Seattle can produce such a reaction, I can only assume that other parts of the country and the world could do the same. Each show would carry the flavor of the group that organized it, so some might focus more on desktop and high-end publishing, whereas others might be more Internet-related.
These fairs need not be difficult to put on. Colleen Miller of BMUG noted that organizing MacFest didn't require a massive staff. "I put the entire thing on myself with the help of Sean O'Connor and, on the day of the event, numerous volunteers. Just about everything went smoothly. The key to running such an event is starting early and making sure you're incredibly organized. Also, press, marketing, and a combination of big name companies and new, cutting edge companies are key to making sure you get attendance."
I don't want to imply that the huge Macworld Expos don't have their place. Bringing together tens of thousands of Macintosh users and hundreds of vendors is useful. The big shows help vendors meet distributors outside the U.S., network with other developers, and get in front of the press (although I think the traditional press would appreciate the smaller fairs if complaints from fellow journalists are any indication). However, a short, sweet, small Mac fair can be a breath of fresh air. As Colleen Miller said, "Accessibility, cost, and a general feeling of camaraderie make the smaller events much better."