I've attended many Macworld Expos, and at each one, I go to a number of the parties. You know what? Most Macworld parties stink, at least from the geek perspective. Guess who makes up at least 95 percent of Macworld attendees? Geeks!
In this article, which I hope lives a long and useful life being passed around in email to anyone who plans trade show parties, I offer some suggestions about how to give a good geek party at Macworld Expo or any trade show. These ideas aren't mine alone - I've gathered them by commiserating with people at parties, including vendors, IS directors, consultants, product managers, and fellow journalists.
The Goal -- First off, let's establish the goal of a Macworld party. The company giving the party wants everyone to have fun, become only decorously tipsy, and buy (or recommend) lots of the company's product. Only the first two can happen at the party (selling product at a party is considered poor form), but the third is more likely to happen later if the first two happen at the party. A party establishes a company as successful; it's a mark of real or desired importance. Also, parties can be a way of saying "thank you" to important customers, and as such are essentially another sales tool. On the other side, the party goers want to have a good time, chat with others, eat, and feel that they're close to the company giving the party.
There's an implied social contract at a trade show party. Everyone knows the party is a sales tool, but the company giving the party shouldn't push product too hard, and the guests should refrain from ill-mannered behavior, such as talking loudly about the product's bugs or competition, or asking uncomfortable questions that are more appropriate to a press conference or booth demonstration.
Music -- Many Macworld parties feature live bands, some of whom are quite good and undoubtedly need paying gigs. But, I'm going to recommend that anyone planning a party forgo the live music unless it's along the lines of a string quartet playing in the corner. The problem is that most bands come with amplifiers and most parties are held in large spaces with awful acoustics. The combination creates an atmosphere where no one can hear anything other than the band, and even if you like the band, the sound quality is generally terrible.
Let's face it, we're talking about geek parties, and geek parties thrown for people who may see each other only once or twice a year. We want to talk to one another, not dance. Even those of us who manage to put aside our utter hipness to wallow in the geekiness of Macworld Expo don't want to dance - we're there to schmooze. The dance floor at any Macworld party features at most a few hardy souls. My guess is that they're the people who planned the party, and they figure, by jiggers, someone's going to dance.
Location -- Real estate agents always emphasize location, and it applies equally well to trade show parties. Pick a location that's within walking distance of the show venue, since many people will attend a party based on whether they think they can get to it easily. In addition, some of us actually like to walk, weather permitting.
It may not always be possible to find the appropriate place close by, but if not, try to make sure that it's a place that cabs go or that has public transit nearby. Trade shows are held in big cities, and most big cities have dangerous parts of town - don't situate your party far from the show venue in a part of town where people won't feel comfortable walking late at night.
Bars can be good because they're cheap or free, and you don't have to worry about liquor regulations. However, they also tend to be overly loud, smoky (though not in California any more), and they lack both food and many places to sit. Overall, I'd say to skip bars.
If possible, have a secure coat check where people can leave their coats and, more importantly, their show goodies and PowerBooks. This is a bit more necessary at a winter show than one held in the summer, but the principle applies no matter what the season - PowerBooks just aren't light enough.
Invitations -- Who to invite? First, invite everyone from your company, because they're great to have on hand for questions and general representation in discussions. Definitely invite members of the press, since you can't buy editorial, but inviting it to a party never hurts. Always invite important customers; it makes them feel even more important and that translates into sales. Similarly, if your company partners with other companies in the industry, to invite them to your party; it shows solidarity.
The real trick comes in whether or not to invite the general public. Being a populist, I encourage it, but being a realist, I understand that it's not possible to invite everyone or have enough food and drink, even if the space is sufficiently large.
Here's my solution. Make your party invitation-only, but distribute multiple invitations to each person you invite, along with a note that they're welcome to invite friends. That way you have a rough idea of how many people might show up (based on the number of printed invitations), your party gains a faint cachet of exclusivity, the people who give out the invitations pick up a few favor points, and the people who get to come without having been explicitly invited are grateful to everyone.
Have name tags for everyone invited to the party (if that's too much work, encourage people to make them at the door). I once saw an elderly woman (not at a trade show) with a large yellow button that proclaimed, "I can't remember your name either!" That's how many of us feel at trade shows, and if people have removed their show badges, identification can be difficult, leading to tricky social situations.
Finally, post your party on the Robert Hess Memorial Party List. Even if it's invitation only, it makes it easier for people to figure out schedules and scam invitations from friends.
Oh, one more thing. Even if you're throwing an exclusive party, let spouses in without a fuss. Turn the spouse away, and you'll lose the person you invited and make them look bad in front of the spouse. Even worse, if we're talking about a geek/non-geek couple, rejecting the non-geek spouse won't engender positive feelings toward you from the geek, who probably pulled a favor to convince the spouse to attend at all. This might seem like a small point, but believe me, I see it all the time.
Timing -- There are relatively few times to have a party at a show like Macworld, which goes for four days. The first night is always the most popular, which forces many people to party-hop. I hit three parties the first night of Macworld this year, and as much as I would have preferred to stay longer at all three, there wasn't time. The second and third nights were somewhat sparse this year, and the last night is out since everyone is tired and many people leave right after the show floor closes.
The kind of party you want may affect the time you pick. If you're aiming for a splashy product launch, go for prime time on the first night. If you want a more intimate gathering or don't need to make a quick impression, aim for later in the week. And, for the truly exclusive party, schedule it for the last day and send invitations well in advance.
Food & Drink -- Food is good, and I recommend you have some at your party, especially since some people tend to become grumpy on low blood sugar. However, don't feel the need to spend a ton of money on fancy catering as long as you follow these basic rules.
Think finger food and think clean. Serving something messy like chicken wings is idiotic. No one wants to get disgustingly dirty at a party, especially when you're shaking hands constantly.
Try for a mix of foods, and remember that there are a lot of vegetarians and even vegans out there, so focusing on meat treats will go over badly. A range of foods also enables people to decide what part of a normal meal they're up to - focusing entirely on sweets plays havoc with those trying to maintain a healthy diet and a full set of teeth.
Make sure to offer a range of drinks, including, though no one seems to think about it, plain water. Some people may want to avoid caffeinated drinks and others may be uninterested in alcohol, at least at a large public party.
Placement of the food is also important since it will attract lots of people. Don't put food down a narrow hall, along a narrow walkway through which everyone must pass, or in other high-traffic areas. Although they make me a little nervous since I'm not good about being served, I have to admit that roving wait staff with trays of finger food make it easier to eat while carrying on discussions.
Demos -- There's always a temptation to do a major demonstration at your party, especially if you're celebrating a product launch. The fact is that people don't come to a party to see a demo, and the kind of space (big room, chairs in rows) that works well for a demo doesn't work for a party.
If you must have a demo, keep it short - perhaps ten minutes or less - and make it the responsibility of someone who's fast and funny. Having stations set up around the perimeter for personal demos after the main demo is a good followup and won't bother anyone (except perhaps the poor folks who have to staff the demo machines during the party). Apple did this one year at an otherwise too-loud party and it was the saving grace of the event.
Themes & Freebies -- Many parties have themes, which, for the most part, are ignored. Don't expend too much energy on a theme, and it's also not worth spending much on gifts - clever though they may seem at the time. Everyone picks up a ton of stuff at Macworld, so unless your giveaway is perfect, it will be wasted. Ideally, look for something that's small, light, and either durable or consumable. StarNine's foam brains from last year were inspired - the brain is the only Macworld tchotchke that has made it to our living room. Things like customized pens and Post-It notes may not seem exciting, but people will probably use them for a long time - I still have some of a pad of note paper Dantz gave out several years ago, and DriveSavers once gave away a pen that featured several different (and only slightly litigious) sayings that rotate in a clear window as you click the pen's top.
In the end, don't get caught up in the trappings of the party. The major feature of these parties is the people who are attending. Attract a crowd of interesting people and provide a congenial atmosphere, and you'll have a successful party.