What is IRCE anyway?
The Internet Retail Conference + Exhibition, or IRCE, is advertised as the world’s largest eCommerce show. As the name suggests, it’s a two-part event held annually at the massive McCormick Place convention center in Chicago. The conference portion focuses on breakout sessions, and the exhibition portion gives vendors and partners a chance to pitch their wares to attendees.
This year I went with two team members, Daniel and Josh. As always, it was a monster event: a ton of breakout sessions, a wide variety of speakers, and a packed exhibition hall. With more than 10,000 attendees and 600+ exhibitors, there was a LOT of activity to take in. It was great to see such a huge turnout.
Due to its size, Gauge’s approach to this conference is a little bit different. Rather than being one more voice vying for attention in the exhibition hall, we try to use this conference to research common retailer concerns and establish relationships with other attendees. Allowing connections to grow more organically this way lays the groundwork for building long-term, value-driven relationships, with both potential clients and potential industry partners.
So we focus on trying to meet as many interesting and ambitious retailers as possible. I love hearing about their businesses and learning about their challenges. Providing services to alleviate those challenges is both our job and our passion, so IRCE is a rare opportunity to listen, listen, and listen some more. Over the two-day event we got to hear a number of excellent presenters, hang out with some industry friends, and make some promising new connections.
So it’s good for you. Will it be good for me & my business?
If you’re a mid-market retailer (think annual eCommerce revenue of $1-20 million), then this conference is very much for you. The conference events are excellent and tracks are well thought out. One signature IRCE method I really enjoy is that every session is led by two presenters. The presentations were thoughtful and highly educational. Although the sessions didn’t build in time for Q&A (more on this later), the speakers we encountered were happy to engage with smaller groups of attendees afterward. Some of my best contacts and discussions happened in these small groups. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the biggest value came when participants could talk out the wider ideas together and apply them to everyday, real-life frustrations and victories.
The conference presentations offered a lot of opportunity to learn from the big guys too, companies like Dell, GoPro, Steve Madden, and many more. The challenges these companies face may be different from what you experience on a day-to-day basis, so it’s easy to overlook similarities. But some issues seem to be pretty universal in the experience of running an eCommerce operation. A lot of what these businesses share will aid you in your future growth and help you avoid making their mistakes. That alone is wildly valuable.
OK, I get it, there are benefits. Now tell me about the downsides.
The format of this conference is outdated and poses a real challenge to actually meeting people. I’ve attended a lot of conferences in the last six months, and there’s an obvious movement away from the highly structured, lecturer/listener presentation format toward interactive roundtable discussions that are loosely facilitated by event staff. The roundtable format is extremely valuable because you meet many other people with the same challenges you face. In a smaller, interactive group, you can find out what’s worked and what hasn’t, without going through the trial-and-error process yourself. You can get some really great ideas about how to move your business forward in simple and immediate ways.
The IRCE schedule didn’t include opportunities for any open discussions; in fact, the schedule largely impeded them. The breakout sessions were bumped right up against each other and often presenters went over time, leaving no opportunity to talk with them or other attendees.
Even the physical setup in each breakout was problematic. The rooms were massive with lots of tables and chairs, far more than was needed for each session. Sure, it was easy to find a seat, but it removed the forced closeness that allows you to meet people more naturally. Because there was so much empty space, sitting next to someone was immediately awkward and off-putting. Not great for networking.
What about the Exhibition part?
Every year we go to IRCE, I am always awed at how big the McCormick Place convention center is. The Exhibition Hall offers hundreds of booths to choose from and a large number of them represent new companies. A common sentiment among those I’ve talked to: You’ll need a strategy for tackling this beast, otherwise it can become intensely overwhelming very quickly.
My biggest piece of advice here is to research the booth layout before the conference, and then check out exhibitors you’re interested in online first to narrow down your choices. The IRCE website is a big help here. There you can find a list of exhibitors, including short descriptions of what they do and a link to their sites.
The main reason for doing this “presearch:” Booth staff members are pretty aggressive in general (with so much competition, they have to be). Showing ANY interest in a booth, even stopping to read the company name, will always result in getting pulled into a sales person’s five minute pitch. With so many booths to explore, you’ll never make it to the ones you want to look at if you don’t come prepared with a plan. Pro tip: You kinda have to be dismissive and blunt with some of the more aggressive salespeople, unless you want to spend your time listening to a lot of stuff that really has no bearing on you or your business.
If you are ambitious and trying to grow your eCommerce business in creative ways, you really do need to go to IRCE. The breakouts are deep, insightful, and quite varied so you can cover lots of area in just a few days. As with any major conference, getting out of your day-to-day responsibilities working IN your business to spend some time working ON your business is always a great thing to do.
However, you do need to go prepared. These are my recommendations for planning ahead:
- Do some research on exhibitors and decide ahead of time which booths you will try to tackle. If you’re an overachiever, create a list of questions for each.
- Don’t plan to attend every session. Stagger the breakouts so you’re not attending any back-to-back. Then talk with the speakers from every one you go to. The discussions this schedule will allow you to have could be the best part of this whole thing for you.
- When you’re done talking with the presenters, go hang out at the tables just outside the breakout rooms. Look for tables with more than three people who are already talking with each other, and then just jump right in. This was pretty tough for me as I am very introverted, but it’s always easier to join a conversation than to start one. Especially if the person you’re trying to engage is just trying to login to check their sales for the day.
- Once the conversation is over, use the leftover time until the next session to gel your notes from the previous breakout and create some concise action items. This will give you a jumpstart in applying those new ideas to your business when you’re back to the daily routine.
If you do these things, you’ll meet amazing people, learn a lot, and avoid the overwhelming feeling.
If you go in 2017 please send me an email, I would love to meet you!