The low attendance figures at the recent NAED Leadership Summit in San Diego got me thinking about all of the different options people have to connect these days.

There's nothing like the face-to-face connections you can make at industry conferences and trade shows, but attendance is down at these events for many trade associations, not just the National Association of Electrical Distributors (NAED), St. Louis. Tighter travel budgets and leaner staffs, industry consolidation and the growing number of videoconferencing communication technologies like WebEx and Skype, and maybe even e-mail, Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook, combine to put a dent in attendance figures at all sorts of trade shows and business-to-business conferences.

As in other years, the 2011 NAED Leadership Summit offered attendees all sorts of opportunities to network. And attendees could pick up new ideas from the conference program to learn about NAED's newest training programs, and an interesting new event — the Congressional Fly-In on Sept. 7-8 that will offer NAED distributors a chance to meet with their local legislators in Washington, D.C., to discuss legislative issues of mutual interest.

However, more NAED distributors and suppliers opt out of the annual meeting. In the 1980s-1990s, the annual meeting usually had 3,000 attendees; this year's event had just over 500 registrants.

But we don't live in that world anymore. The economy and new communication technologies are forcing all business to rethink how and where they interact with their customers. While I don't think you can ever replace the value of meeting face-to-face with customers at trade shows and other industry events, you have to be open to the communication opportunities these new electronic technologies do offer. I think “traditional” trade shows and conferences will continue to work best in the following areas.

Where end users need to/want to touch and feel new products

Some trade shows still enjoy crazy numbers of attendees. Lightfair still draws 20,000 attendees, and SolarPower International and the American Wind Energy Association's WindPower show also regularly top the 20,000-mark in attendees, in large part because of their focus on new products.

New products don't have to be a plane flight away. GE is now utilizing the time-tested marketing strategy of the mobile trade show to showcase new products in local markets with its GE Lighting Solutions Revolution Tour, now on a 47-city roadtrip across North America. And back in the ancient times, Electrical Construction & Maintenance (EC&M) magazine would organize customer panels for advertisers that wanted to have electrical contractors and other end users play with, break and otherwise evaluate new product prototypes. Would either of these concepts work for you today?

When attendees need to knock off a bunch of required Continuing Education Units (CEUs) for their professions

Shows like BICSI in the voice/data/video (VDV) market and Lightfair draw big-time numbers of attendees who attend the show to not only network and see new products, but because they are required to keep up with the latest training in their fields. Even if customers aren't coming in for actual CEUs, never skimp on the quality of training if you are hosting a live event like an open house, counter day, etc.

Have you tried webinars? Webinars on the right subjects are proven producers of high-quality, end-user audiences. Mike Holt, the nationally recognized expert on the National Electrical Code (NEC) who teams with EC&M magazine to do webinars on changes in the NEC, recently did a webinar on NEC regulations for photovoltaic installations attracted more than 3,400 pre-registrants.

Where senior-level managers need to meet with senior-level customers

This interaction has long been the core of the one-on-one sessions run by the Affiliated Distributors and IMARK buying/marketing groups; the National Electrical Manufacturers Representatives Association (NEMRA) at their annual meetings, and is also part of the NAED national and regional conferences.

The real trick is to blend traditional meetings with the right measures of the new communication technologies. Don't stop attending industry trade shows. But you should also learn how electronic communication technologies can maximize the number of “touches” you get with customers. So go ahead and buy that plane ticket. If you hurry, aisle seats may still be available.