With thousands of industry players from around the globe preparing to make the trek to the Nevada desert in two weeks, the hundreds of hours of preparation will boil down to 48 hours of non-stop talking, selling, buying and networking.  Oh, and eating. Yes, the Digital Signage Expo is upon us, and while many people will come early, and a few will blow (or possibly enhance) Valentine’s Day staying late, the bulk of the activity will take place from Tuesday evening through Thursday evening.

The conference kicks off on Tuesday with the pre-show educational program featuring lots of valuable programming in longer formats than the traditional sessions during the show proper. The pre-show programs have been popular with those making a week of it, as well as the  attendees from overseas, many of whom invest the time to come early, acclimate to the time zone change, and re-acquaint themselves with Vegas. The bulk of the attendees, both exhibitors and delegates, show up during the day on Tuesday and activity picks up dramatically. The new, unofficial kickoff of DSE is Preset Group’s Annual Mixer on Tuesday evening. If you don’t already hold a ticket (free, but limited), you don’t need to concern yourself. The mixer is a good place to get charged up for the show, seeing lots of familiar and generally friendly faces.  Of course, it is always fun to chat with the folks worth engaging with while either avoiding, goading or staring down The IP Thief, The Freeloaders, The Blowhards, The Partner-Screwers and the Integrity-Challenged. At least there will be enough Canadians there to ensure a good time.  Dave Haynes, one of the founders of Preset Group and prime mover of the mixer, posted some demographics on the mixer attendees.  I truly feel for the seven end users who will be there, all of whom will need body guards or badges with fake names. There will be various other events on Tuesday night, including sponsored and private receptions and dinners. All in the spirit of reconnecting and preparing for the following two days.

Those following two days become a whirlwind of human interface.  Vendors will be working the end users hard. Vendors will be trolling other vendors. The educational sessions off of the trade show floor will be going non-stop, while on-floor round tables are largely sold out. Announcements will fly. Pro tip: don’t get involved in a drinking game where you have to read a press release and drink every time the word “leader”, “disruptive” or “innovative” is mentioned. It could be hazardous to your health. The good folks at Exponation will be everywhere to keep everything running smoothly, video taping interviews and booth vignettes, and generally seeking feedback like smart organizers do. For them, this culminates a year of work, so if they are smiling, it is because it is finally happening.

People have knocked DSE for a perceived lack of end users and a lack of innovation amongst the exhibitors. I think that both are somewhat unfair shots. Yes, there are dozens of industry-focused conferences that many digital signage vendors attend, underscoring the thought that clear vertical focus is a worthy strategy. Of course there will be more retailers at NRF, more restaurateurs at NRA and more healthcare companies at HIMMS, to name a few.  Yet there is only one place where they can find the full gamut of potential solutions, and that is DSE.  There is only one place where they can get smart on digital signage issues or get certified in digital signage specialties, and that is DSE. Would we (the collective exhibitors) love to have lots more buyers walking the aisles? Of course. But give me educated and engaged any day and I will take my chances.  Those folks I was avoiding at the mixer? They probably want the dumb ones in quantity. I guess that qualifies as a strategy, too. As for innovation, I have ranted before about how innovation extends beyond product to business model, and I believe that still resonates. That said, I think that there is a lot of good thinking going on across the spectrum of software, hardware, content and service providers in terms of developing and applying new ideas and new technologies to the basic problem that digital signage solves. Walk the floor and poke around, you will see what I mean. Of course there are plenty of bad ideas passed off as brilliant, and you can encounter some of them just a few steps from the ribbon cutting, or perhaps in the keynote.

There has been a lot of employment mobility in digital signage over the past year. The grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence, and some acquisitions are not as synergistic as advertised, so you can expect quite a bit of professional networking to go on at the show. Even more active than the job seeking will be the prospective kindling of new partnerships as vendors begin to understand how to properly put all the pieces of a proper solution together. There will also be venture capitalists, private equity firms and investment bankers walking the floor. Our industry has gotten their attention, and they are looking to create and nurture relationships that could turn into deals.

Wednesday evening and night bring on the networking reception at The Sands show site, and later on that evening, the DSE 2014 Awards Dinner at The Paris. The networking reception is always a great opportunity to check back in with people you talked to that day, find the ones you didn’t talk to, and to renew old friendships. It is also a great way to forget how much your feet and shins hurt. I usually reserve Wednesday night for client dinners, but may have to check in at the Awards dinner for a hat tip to Phil Cohen as he receives the DSF Legacy Award for his service as Chair in 2013. It is always a worthy event, and a lot goes into it. I believe that there is space available if you’d like to attend. It ends early enough to meet up with your team, friends, customers or providers to extend your day further.

Thursday will be more of the same at the show, and people who have a shot at getting home that evening will begin to trickle out. Most don’t, however. As a result, Thursday evening is a great opportunity to unwind, recap conversations, seal deals and generally plan next steps. If things go as they should, you will board your homeward-bound plane tired, yet energized; lighter in the wallet, yet heavier in the rolodex; numb from nonstop activity, yet smarter. Don’t forget that Valentine’s Day is Friday, so you may want to arrive home with something more than a freebie t-shirt from the show. See you at DSE!