I recently had the privilege of attending ISM’s 94th annual International Supply Management Conference and Educational Exhibit in Charlotte, NC. Over the course of the early set-up hours of Sunday morning, I was amazed as the baron concrete convention center transformed into a virtual wonderland of signs, booths, promos, and freebies. From posters, banners, and flat-screens to racecars, rubber-band-balls, and fire-sharks (what the heck is a fire-shark?), the conference was a regular cornucopia of direct marketing. As a fist-time attendee, staring down aisle after aisle of promotions, I couldn’t help but wonder what everyone-exhibitors and visitors-were hoping to get from this event. By the end of the final day, I had a pretty good idea.

The Purchasers
I decided to classify the first group of ISM patrons as the “purchasers”. The purchasers came to learn. Whether they were purchasing managers, VP’s, or CEO’s, this group of people were on a serious mission to broaden their understanding of the latest developments in the sourcing industry. Some took advantage of the educational sessions ISM offered, others were there to scope out the vast array of industry solutions, and many came to do both. This group of individuals put their time in on the floor, asked plenty of good questions, and most likely got more than their time and money’s worth from the exhibit. Whether it was knowledge learned in a session or an intro to the perfect solution for their company’s unique supply chain challenges, everyone in this group took something of value away from the conference.

The Pitchers
The pitchers came to town for business. They recognized the conference as a great opportunity to get face-to-face with their target market, and they jumped on it. With dollar and resource investments that ranged from “eh” to over-the-top, each of the pitchers came to play ball. These ISM patrons passed the hours with pitch after pitch to potential clients and customers. Every question asked was an opportunity to differentiate themselves from the competition, and every contact made represented a new lead into potential business. As a member of this particular ISM “group” I can say, especially after the 12 hour Tuesday session, that the conference was quite an undertaking. As a secondary benefit, the pitchers also got a chance to see the ways in which the competitive landscape of their market is shifting and evolving.

The Partners
For every two exhibitors that were competing for the same market, there were most likely two companies that offered complimentary services and/or products. This situation created a fertile environment for partnership development. Over the course of hours of exhibiting, hob-knobbing, dinners, and drinks, many of the pitchers and purchasers discovered opportunities to partner with other pitchers and purchasers (say that five times fast. If you’re actually trying, we’d probably get along). As a result, many companies walked away from the show with the promise of expanding their current business base, breaking into new markets, and improving their overall business models via partnerships.

The Posers
While this group of attendees was the minority, there were enough of them to warrant mention. Some attendees, would-be purchasers and pitchers alike, were not spending their time in Charlotte all that wisely. Included in this group are the executives who made record time through the exhibit Sunday night, the trick-or-treaters just looking for enough chatch-skies to prove to the boss they were there, and the salesmen who thought the convention was a three-day frat party. This group should be particularly ashamed of themselves in the face of the current economic climate. While half of accounts payable is being laid-off, these particular individuals were blowing through company cash under the pretence of industry education. With that being said, there were also some purchasing professionals that were so dedicated to their craft that they picked up the bill to attend the conference on their own time even after their company had to cut the convention from the yearly budget. Kudos to them. For what it’s worth, you’ve certainly earned our respect.

Overall, the conference was a great experience. I, even as an exhibitor, learned more than I could have ever expected, our company was able to develop some solid leads, and quite a few doors were opened for partnering opportunities. If you were able to attend, I hope you took as much away from it as I did, and, if not, I hope you have the opportunity to go next year.
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Steve Tatum

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  1. I bet I can guess who the Frat Boys were. The company name starts with an A, ends with an A, and sounds like Ariba.