Walking down the aisles at the Futurex trade show last week was an unsettling experience. You didn't bump into other people and jostle for space as you do at some international trade fairs. Exhibitors on some of the stands looked bored or were working on their laptops, not even glancing up at the occasional passer-by. The 211 stands in the Sandton Convention Centre were attractive and professional, but there was a sense that the effort had gone to waste for too few admirers.

Organiser Sandra Galbraith of Exhibitions For Africa readily admits that Futurex failed to draw the expected 10,000 visitors. But this is not a sign of exhibition fatigue, she says. In the classic response to low numbers, Galbraith insists it is not the quantity of the crowd that counts but the quality.

"There is definitely a place for IT shows, but Futurex has to become more exciting and someone will have to increase the visitors next year. Everybody says the internet means you can do all your shopping online, but business owners want to touch, see and feel what they buy and you can't do that on the internet."

One problem with the show is that it does not attract major local players such as Sahara, manufacturer of computers and laptops. "We don't have the support of those big guys and that's something we need to work on," Galbraith says. "This is a partnership between Exhibitions for Africa and our exhibitors. If we support the industry, we need the industry to support us as well."

Sahara no longer exhibits because of a combination of cost and target audience, says its deputy MD, Gary Naidoo. "Over the years, Futurex has changed its outlook, and we felt if we needed to target specific customers we would conduct our own road shows and hold an annual convention and bring in customers from Africa. "That works much better for us because we target our resellers and share road maps with them."

Naidoo says he disagrees with a change of strategy by Futurex to ban students and focus on business visitors. "In this country there are a lot of people who are not exposed to technology and a show as big as this should definitely try to attract a broader audience."

Naidoo also thinks trade fairs are too expensive for technology distributors, which are working with paper-thin profit margins. "The cost in terms of what you get wasn't providing adequate returns," he says.

Galbraith took over the management of Futurex last year, and says other staff changes within Exhibitions For Africa also disrupted its organisation. Fresh elements designed to put more fun into Futurex did not work as well as expected, she says, although the lessons learnt should make them better next year.

One new angle was a hacking contest that hackers failed to attend, with only four out of an expected 40 arriving. "That was a great pity, but we will run it again next year and start planning earlier so they take time off work."

Also new was an e-waste disposal area, where people could tip broken or obsolete electronic goods for environmentally friendly recycling. Galbraith says she really had expected people to arrive with comatose computers and dead monitors.

"Green issues are highly topical, so we had porters with trolleys so people could offload their goods. I was hoping to build a mountain of e-waste. Next year we'll start promoting it earlier."

Overall, however, the figure of 211 exhibitors was up from the 206 last year, and international participation doubled. Exhibition space costs R1400/m' for the four-day show. To help exhibitors make the most of it, Galbraith ran training sessions on how to make their stands attractive, how to greet visitors and draw them in, and goals to set such as lead generation. "If a company successfully works its stand, they could have leads for the rest of the year," she says.

Despite manning a lonely looking stand at the back of hall two, Anil Ramnarain of Ghandi Technology was happy with his debut appearance. Ramnarain imports business process software from India and the US. "The first day was pretty quiet but the second day turned around for us and we had some pretty good leads. I met about 10 people, of which five had particular requirements for this kind of software."

Even if the leads do not turn into direct business, being at Futurex was a good way to promote his company, he says. His big complaint was that the organisers did not supply a list of pre-registered visitors or a visitor roll from last year so he could contact potential customers. "With a list of people who were coming through we could have contacted them with a view to setting up meetings with the financial services and insurance industries and send out invites."

About 40 Indian companies set up stands this year, aided by India's Electronics and Computer Software Export Promotion Council. "Some companies have been getting good business and we have had some good inquiries," said Sharad Damodar, assistant manager of software developer Satyam. "There's definitely enough business to make them come back." Satyam has had a presence in SA for two years and attends Futurex to give its brand further exposure, he says.

A small cluster of companies from the Czech Republic were also exhibiting, with financial aid from their industry and trade ministry. "We are trying to find new contacts here to sell our products," said Pavel Pospichal, head of technical support for Optokon, which develops components for optical networks.

"I know that our products are very specific so I don't expect a lot of people to be interested. We are looking for specialist distributors and installers and telecoms companies." Pospichal met about 40 potential buyers, and will be glad if five or 10 turn into solid deals.

Business Day