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Marketed in Manhattan

Postcard from Manhattan

By David S. Hirsch

MANHATTAN—They came from far and wide—with rolling suitcases and portable e-mail terminals in tow—but they were drawn together by a common desire: to experience the ultimate techno-geek dream. As the hundreds of thousands of attendees of CeBit America 2003 entered the massive glass and steel lobby of the Jacob Javits Conference Center on Manhattan’s West Side, they were accosted by signs and logos of companies from Xerox to Siemens and prompted by convention staff to register at the appropriate bank of LCD panel kiosks.

After scanning my registration badge’s barcode at the front gate, I entered into a world of techno gadgets, chatty salesmen and frantic conference attendees, all trying to make the most out of their limited time at one of the most important business technology shows of the year.

Although this is not my haunt, per se—I am spending the summer working in finance—I was thrilled at the opportunity to experience this mega tradeshow and all it had to offer my less-than-secret love of dorky techno-gadgets. What I quickly learned, though, was that the gadgets were neat, but the show itself was fascinating.

Regardless of theme, tradeshows have a culture all their own, and I received several important lessons regarding show procedure in short order. The first, and by far the most important, lesson: gather as many free mugs, bags, t-shirts, thermoses, Tupperware sets and pens, and enter as many raffles for free gear as is humanly possible. It is near impossible to leave such an event without at least one bag with a giant vendor logo filled to the brim with such items, which one can then distribute to friends and family as birthday and holiday gifts. If your significant other asks what the “3-Com” on the stainless steel coffee mug means, just tell them it’s your new pet name for them.

The second lesson is an old standby: there is no such thing as something for nothing. Indeed, these free gifts—marvelous tokens of affection which are hurled at visitors so carelessly—are not just handed out willy-nilly, but rather are part of an exchange between buyer and seller aimed at attracting business for exhibiting companies. In order to earn the privilege of a precious free gift, one must pay the tax of listening to a sales pitch or presentation on a new product, which most likely has nothing to do with the gift you are lusting after in the first place.

Third: go to all the cool-looking displays first. The winner at this year’s show was undoubtedly NTT DoCoMo, the national phone company of Japan. The company does not sell its products in the U.S. marketplace, but their presence at the show was still an apparent must. The giant booth, which resembled a spaceship constructed of fluorescent green plastic and brushed steel, was lit up so that its glow radiated upon its neighbors. Inside, attractive women dressed in leather miniskirts and high heels showcased the latest in video cell phone and mobile e-mail technology now used in Japan. When I had a question they could not answer, I was walked over to a wall with a large screen labeled “videophone,” which promptly linked me to an engineer in Tokyo who, despite his distinctly tired appearance, eagerly answered my inquiry. Twenty-four hours later, the entire booth would be packed up or trashed and designers would be planning for next year.

Yet more interesting than the culture of the show is the fact that it translates into serious business off the exhibit floor. Indeed, the gift of a five-dollar t-shirt on the part of a vendor might be returned with a $50,000 purchase by an information technology manager. Businesses call it customer relationship management (CRM for short), or “touch” or leveraging relationships. Whatever you call it, the concept is simple: even when the business involves tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars, transactions are still a person-to-person affair, and flattery will get you everywhere.

David S. Hirsch ’04, an economics concentrator in Lowell House, is an executive editor of The Crimson. He is spending his summer proving to the financial services industry that trinkets are a guy’s best friend.

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