CAD conferences have done the pivot thing several times in the course of the history of our favorite software. In those early days, there were general CAD conferences, like AEC Systems, where lots of CAD vendors showed up and tens of thousands of users thronged the aisles. Those were delicious times.
The problem for CAD vendors was that in such an environment customers could see, hear, touch, and learn about competitors. The stories of the Autodesk booth being mobbed in the mid-1980s are legend -- and true, for I was there. Competitors scowled at the sight that meant the loss of customers.
I recall speaking with an Intergraph representative upset with the AutoCAD proposition, considered revolutionary at the time: customize CAD yourself. The rep warned me that this was dangerous (or something like that, I don't recall the exact descriptor), and it was much better to have Intergraph do the programming for you.
This was the year, 1986, when a license of AutoCAD went for $2,500 and an Intergraph station went for $50,000 or $1000,000 or more. Intergraph's solution was so expensive because it included the custom hardware Intergraph itself built. AutoCAD's was so cheap because the customer had to buy his own hardware, which in the mid-1980s was actually not cheap. Even though personal computers (running AutoCAD) were much cheaper than minicomputers (running Intergraph), you could end up spending $50,000 on high-end hardware for AutoCAD. Heck, that E-size plotter alone would set you back $18,000.
Never mind. The times they were undergoing a paradigm shift, and it was exciting to live through it. A different class of people (like me) wanted to assemble their own computers, and also wanted to customize their own CAD systems. Intergraph didn't get it, and for them that was understandable, as they came from the 1970s era of the turn-key mindset, which was normal: one company provided the hardware, software, installation, training, and customization. In the end, Intergraph eventually became another AutoCAD.
At the time, I was at CADalyst magazine, and we marveled at what our readers were coming up with. My favorite was the stained glass maker who was delighted that AutoCAD could unequally scale his designs to fit customers' windows precisely! A trivial operation for CAD really, but until PC-based CAD came along, otherwise neigh-impossible.
Back to the Story
Yah, so CAD vendors scowled at potential customers having easy access to competitors, and so in the early 1990s began holding locked conferences and exhibitions. There was only one message: us. No distractions permitted.
Whereas before anyone with $1,700 for booth space could show up at an AEC Systems show, now even third-party developers who looked like they might be infringing on the mother corp's products were banned. The lockdown extended to stopping outspoken customers at the door, and blocking uncooperative members of the CAD press from attending.
Competitors were reduced to assuming false identities to infiltrate the proceedings (true story), or else set up shop across the street in hotel suites (also true). Some were brazen, buying up billboards on the road from the airport and across from the convention center, even handing out leaflets in the streets, all to convince the faithful of their erroneous belief system. Why a believer would fall for a billboard was beyond me, but hey, it wasn't me who was in charge of that CAD vendor's marketing budget.
Status report from inside: everyone is happy, happy, happy! And so excited. Oh yes. So much excitement!
Most conferences were not presents from CAD vendors to their loyal customers. Some were free, most charged, and some charged handsomely. Between the conference fee, jacked-up hotel rates, and air fare, customers could be looking at paying $5,000 annually to prove their devotion to billionaire CAD vendors.
Some customers did see an annual trip to Las Vegas (yuck!) as a tax-deductible vacation. Many went for the training, for which they'd have to pay anyhow. And I hear from CAD vendors that they pretty much never made a profit off these events, even the ones who charged handsomely.
We're Back to Open
Then the travel ban killed the CAD love-in business. Where hijackers and shoe bombers failed in decades of trying, the world's tiniest living entity and the world's largest bureaucracies succeeded in just three months.
Fortunately for CAD vendors, the technology for broadcasting conferences over the Internet was already in place, and so we are hearing that 3x and 4x as many customers now take part.
Unfortunately for CAD vendors, the distraction factor is back.
After a 20-year gap, customers again have easy access to a smorgasbord of offerings from competitors. In this environment, CAD vendors can no longer rope in users. In my case, this year I've been to 4x as many conferences as in former times. They're free, they're open, and they take up a few hours instead of a few days.
So this week, yet another invite arrived for an online conference. This one had a twist. If you attended, you would get $50 off the purchase of the vendor's software, if you signed up early enough. Earlier in the year, PTC offered free popcorn for signing up early, and they made good: I got mine.
It's just a germ of an idea, but as Zoom Fatigue becomes the next psychosis, paying customers to attend could be a clever technique to get the turned-off to once again tune in.
But I do miss the travel to exotic locales.