Opening Cross: Participation, Not Procrastination, Will Save SIFMA

Max Bowie, editor, Inside Market Data

Another SIFMA show has come and gone, the booths are packed away, the parties are cleaned up, and the giveaways are tucked safely in the luggage of the tourists who wander round the show each year collecting free merchandise for their second-hand vendor-branded pen and stress ball businesses. But as we bathe our aching feet (ouch!), count the bar bills (ouch!) and hang up the lanyards for another year, let’s also stop to ask: what do we learn from SIFMA?

For journalists like myself, it’s a chance to discover vendors that might otherwise not cross my radar, to quiz them on new products, and to see people who don’t often make it to the same timezone—as well as to collar those who don’t usually take my calls.

For data professionals, it’s a chance to see what’s new. Plenty of data staff are expected to know about all potential services as part of their job, but what with the rigors of everyday life in the market data industry—from the daily grind of sourcing and negotiating new services and rolling out new content and supporting technologies, to strategic projects that contribute to the efficiency of the overall organization, to administrative headaches like managing exchange audits—they don’t necessarily have time to take constant meetings and demos of those services on a daily basis, so this provides an opportunity to target a list of vendors in one place at the same time, while also finding out about new ones.

And for other, smaller vendors, it’s a chance to bump into a base of potential clients they only dream of reaching through their own efforts, even if they can’t afford the presence of a booth. But many exhibitors did not return this year, and some are taking advantage of this open approach to attendees. Apparently there’s a technical term—“suitcasing”—for vendors who don’t exhibit at a show but turn up in force to hawk their wares in the aisles. The problem is that with free admission to the exhibition, vendors who may be on the fence about taking part can still do a lot of business—after all, you don’t need a branded booth to give someone a demo; you just need a laptop (or even just an iPad) and a ready supply of interested parties. A simple solution is what we adopted for our own events: data consumers come for free, while non-exhibiting vendors have to pay to attend. Sure, some people might decide not to visit the show, but in other cases, as those fees add up, it can incentivize vendors to take a booth in order to get their staff through the door, because those staff get much more value than just snaring potential clients—they also get to network and learn and see the other offerings in the market.

But key to this is that, yes, there is still a ready supply of interested people making their way through the event—as well as the parties that go on around it— some of whom travel from far afield. The SIFMA show—while much maligned by many who bear the cost—still has a draw that other industry events do not. It is, after all, run by the industry association that represents financial market participants of all shapes and sizes on regulatory, technology and data-related issues. Hence, its membership—and base of attendees—is extremely broad. So the challenge is how to cater to that broad base. There were plenty of people with opinions at the event, and they need to share them with the organizers, and take an ownership role in the event’s evolution. If you want to bring the decision-makers (and their checkbooks) back to the floor, help set an agenda that incentivizes them to attend.

In short, participation begets participation. Pulling out and taking advantage of the influx of data and technology execs that week to run an event on the sidelines doesn’t help anyone, because if that precipitates a decline in SIFMA attendance, those other events also suffer. Even the critics acknowledge the SIFMA show’s value. So maybe what we can learn is that the industry needs to put more into SIFMA if it wants to get more value out.

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