Sales people despise them.  Management hates paying for them.  Marketing spends weeks or months preparing for them.  And most people have no clue if they’re worth the cost.

The trade show dilemma has been escalating over the past few years. In an effort to maximize their own profits, industry trade organizations have been staging ever more – and ever more elaborate – shows and conferences.

I recently had the good fortune to speak with the CEO of one of the nation’s top industrial design and manufacturing firms.  Having built his company from the ground up, he is keenly aware of every component of his business – and he has recently decided to ditch the trade show circuit.

He arrived at this decision through a revolutionary new process called “ROI analysis.”  OK, so perhaps it’s not so revolutionary, but he’s the first person I’ve seen apply a truly systematic approach to measuring the utility of exhibiting at trade shows.

From the last two major conferences of 2010, the sales team recorded all net new contacts in Salesforce.com.  After an 8 month period (the average sales cycle for new business), he determined that a total of $8,000 in revenue had been acquired…at a cost of $50,000 in “show” costs.

Although he will be keeping an eye out for the longer tail of potential business (out to 18 months), it seemed clear that the cost of attending these conferences far outweighed any direct financial benefit.

But wait!” you say.  “Trade shows are a marketing exercise and cannot be measured in strict revenue terms.”

The fear, in other words, is that while it may not help you to attend a theoretically important trade show, you might be hurt by your absence.

This fear could be valid – but only if you do not engage in alternate sales and marketing solutions.  Here’s what our savvy CEO did:

1. Transformed his Website and his business into a resource for potential customers – which has become a rich source of leads and contacts.  Their Website now includes expert blogs, white papers, Webinars and “Ask the Expert” forums.  They even have a YouTube channel with commentary on industry questions and concerns.

The end result is that literally thousands of people are driven to their Website, their expert credentials are further burnished, and they do most of it without ever leaving their desks.

2. Offers training, educational seminars, and technical assistance to his customers.  By positioning themselves as a critical resource to their customers, they simultaneously make themselves indispensible and continue to spread word of their expertise.

3. Engaged qualified PR and SEO experts to insure that his audience continues to grow both organically and through purposeful positioning.  The SEO process is not instantaneous.  But based upon all of their activities, the firm is now ranked in the top three on Google for many of their most desired search terms.

4. Gets placed in on-line directories and continues to acquire leads thorough both client referral programs and list purchase.  The old ways still work too.  Fundamental shoe-leather selling remains the lifeblood of most businesses.

At the end of the day, every company must decide if trade show purgatory is worth it.  One man’s tale of escape, however, proves that there may be a better way.