The heart of the digital signage world will be beating for three days in Las Vegas when the Digital Signage Expo opens on February 26th. From relatively humble beginnings as the Digital Retailing Expo ten years ago, the conference has grown in size, scope and influence. The Exponation team that owns and runs the event, led by Angelo Varrone and Chris Gibbs, has worked hard for a decade to evolve both itself and the event. One key to their success has been a notable focus on listening to and communicating with their customers, who vary from industry newbies to giant multinational corporations and everything in between. The results include the Digital Signage Connection, localized “Huddle” and regional Forum events and most notably the birth of the Digital Signage Federation. From the early days in San Francisco and Chicago, it has been instructive to watch a business grow and prosper by serving customer needs.  Yes, I am an unapologetic fan, and here are seven reasons why DSE matters, regardless of what you do in the industry.

1. Networking: The event is not just about people looking for hardware, software and services. Plenty of business will be done, have no fear. But perhaps the number one reason that DSE matters is the unparalleled networking opportunity it provides to the industry. There will be companies looking for employees. Free agents looking for their next gig. Companies looking for partners of every stripe. People looking for contacts to expand their personal networks and influence. And of course, friends touching base with friends, who may often be competitors as well. We are still a relatively small industry and DSE provides a venue to recharge relationships and build new ones in the ultimate digital signage-themed atmosphere. Don’t miss the opportunity to just talk and meet people. Networking provides an example of the organizers’ ability to listen: The Preset Mixer (check out the profile at 0:33 of the video), started as a rogue gathering in a dive bar, reflecting the sensibilities of the man behind the curtain, Dave Haynes. It has since evolved into a calendar mainstay and a networking kickoff to the conference. Rather than continuing to program competing events around that precious Tuesday evening, Exponation has embraced the Mixer, sponsored it, and moved its own Tuesday VIP event to a later time slot. Smart.

2. Education: Exponation spends an incredible amount of time working on the program, the speakers and the educational opportunities available to attendees. They work hard at preventing the seminar sessions from becoming a self-promotion fest for vendors, which is important. Outside of the session programming, on-floor workshops and themed discussion groups offer smaller venues for interactive learning. And then there is the certification programming offered through the Digital Signage Experts Group (DSEG), which offers four tracks perfect for bringing new hires and veterans alike up to speed. If there is something the industry truly needs it is pervasive, rather than elusive expertise. DSEG certification is the ground floor for getting there.

3. Internationalization: The conference has enjoyed participation from outside of North America for quite some time. Now it caters to the needs of the international set with a half-day pre-conference program featuring speakers from across the globe. Attendees are expected from over 60 countries, and one would expect that they are coming for more than the diverse cultural activities of Clark County, Nevada. They are coming to learn, to network, to partner and to buy. It is often very revealing to understand the state of digital signage in different countries. Savvy attendees will listen and learn from the international guests.

4. Las Vegas: Love it or hate it, Las Vegas has been associated with iconic signage since the days of Bugsy Siegel, with none more iconic than the low tech, landmark Welcome sign. Today, there is an amazing array of digital signage, interactive displays and projection projects from the hotels of the Strip to the Fremont Street Experience. You will be accosted with it and amazed by it from the moment you step off your plane at McCarren Airport. The DSE has no problem setting up and selling out a terrific multi-bus tour of in situ digital signage in the Las Vegas area. Those not into guided tours will find both good and bad ideas in their journeys during the week. For all of us geeks who think of nits in the non-insect sense, the bright lights of Las Vegas beckon and serve as a living laboratory. Oh yeah, there are some really good restaurants, too. Me likes me food.

5. What’s New, What’s Coming: The opening of the DSE event signals a mad rush of press releases, and this year will be no different than the past.  Many vendors time announcements of new products, new customers and other strategic shifts to coincide with the large audience at DSE. After all, if there is one thing we all understand, it is the importance of a message relevant to the venue it is delivered in. Many themes and announcements were unveiled at the recent CES and ISE shows leading up to DSE, but most exhibitors will want to have an answer to the question, “What’s new?”. Expect product announcements, software releases, partnerships and perhaps the surprise acquisition. There will even be some non-exhibitors claiming preeminence and leadership from the podium of a partner’s booth, a tactic sure to thrill the conference organizers and unlikely to fool the masses. There will be some innovative products, ideas and strategies on display in the exhibit hall as well as in the corridors and meeting rooms. It is a great chance to gauge the traction of last year’s trends and the emergence of new ones. Smart attendees will leave with a feel for what is baked and what is half-baked but promising, and then plan accordingly.

6. Many Birds, One Stone: With a Who’s Who of buyers, sellers and experts all under one roof for two days, it is possible for any organization, project team or individual to accomplish many goals, provided that they bring the right footwear and and energy drinks. Displays, mounts and media players will abound and perhaps even astound. Software, content and services of all types will be lined up like cattle at a livestock auction. Any organization considering a purchase, upgrade, switch or new venture will have ample opportunity to survey the playing field, assess the players and start to put together a short list in each relevant category. Outside the exhibit hall, sessions and workshops offer the chance to hear from and interact with one’s peer group and to ask questions of knowledgeable speakers. It is a chance to put faces with names, eyeballs on products and handshakes on deals. Plan your time and your team’s time wisely… those days go quickly!

7. The Digital Signage Federation: The DSF came to be in 2010 when the need for a single, independent voice for the industry became quite apparent, and Exponation’s Angelo Varrone provided the impetus and the foundation to bring it to life. (Full disclosure: I am a founding Board member of DSF and currently serve on the Executive Committee.) There was plenty of drama and politics that motivated the launch of DSF, but steel is born from fire. DSF has evolved into a vibrant, vital and growing advocate and resource for the digital signage community. Strong focus on education, standards and ethics have attracted hundreds of new members. Each of the first four DSF Chairs of has committed to a legacy initiative, which has kept things constantly fresh and forward-looking. The DSE is the official trade show of DSF, and DSF will have a significant presence on the show floor. There will be interesting content, a wifi-enabled lounge for members, and Board members giving their time to staff the booth, anchored by incoming Membership Chair Shaneeka James and our outstanding Executive Director Brian Gorg. Stop by, listen to what DSF offers you, your organization and your industry, and join us. Be a part of making the tide rise for everyone.

There you have it, seven reasons why DSE is a must do. Don’t forget to bring lots of cards, extra socks and a smile. Share your observations, pictures and thoughts as you go on Twitter, using hashtag #dse2013. And please come by and say hello at Booth 1613.