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For years, we’ve been watching the growth of tabletop tradeshows in this industry. These one-day shows are a bargain for exhibitors and attendees alike, and they’re often held far from the West Coast, where most big industry events take place, making them attractive to technologists who can’t travel to IPC APEX EXPO or DesignCon.
One of the fastest-growing tabletop shows is PCB Carolina, which is held at NC State University in Raleigh. Each year, the show draws more exhibitors than the venue hall can hold, pushing some exhibitors out into the lobby. And this year, the number of registered attendees broke the 1,000 mark for the first time.
At PCB Carolina, I spoke with Randy Faucette, the founder of the Research Triangle Park design bureau Better Boards, which organizes this annual tradeshow and conference, and I asked him to share the secret to this show’s expansion.
Andy Shaughnessy: Randy, good to see you again.
Randy Faucette: Yes, it is. Great to see you, Andy.
Shaughnessy: So, you all developed this show years ago with the IPC Designers Council, but with the Designers Council a thing of the past, Better Boards is now the sole organizer of PCB Carolina. Is that accurate?
Faucette: It is. This was an event that we did for the betterment of the industry, but it wasn’t really a profitable thing. Better Boards was footing the bill for whatever costs weren’t covered by the RTP Chapter of the Designers Council. And when the Designers Council was dissolved, we were faced with the demise of the show. The board decided to let Better Boards adopt the show fully in order to keep it alive – we’ve the majority planners of the show for a few years now, anyway.
Shaughnessy: Great. Now, this may be the biggest year I can remember for this show. The show floor has been full almost the entire day. Do you have any numbers you can you share with us?
Faucette: I haven’t processed all the attendance numbers yet, but 2018 and 2019 were our largest years, just before COVID. We were seeing numbers in the upper 900s. When I checked earlier today, we had broken 1,000 attendees this year, which is a big milestone for us. Yes, there were a lot of people here today.
Shaughnessy: I noticed that it was busy even when classes were under way.
Faucette: Yes. We plan the technical sessions to allow people to have some time back on the exhibit floor while we turn over the rooms. It also allows some of the technical presenters, if they have a lot of engagement and good Q&A, to run over a little bit without being under high pressure to terminate and get everybody out of the room. We’ve got a proven format here.
Shaughnessy: How many exhibitors did you have this year?
Faucette: We had 82 exhibitors this year.
Shaughnessy: And it was pretty much wall-to-wall exhibitors, and even out in the lobby. You’ve mentioned before that you’re afraid you’re outgrowing the venue, but NC State is so good to you and so accommodating to your requirements.
Faucette: They are, and that is our challenge. It would be very difficult for us to find a venue that’s going to work well with the format that we’ve come up with. We had 19 vendors on the waiting list this year, all hoping that somebody would drop out. That’s just the ones that decided to add their names. Once the waitlist got to 15, many just don’t bother adding their names.
We’re trying to come up with some creative ideas to get more exhibitors to have a presence here in some way. We’ve been able to spill over into the lobby and take over that space, which has helped offer some relief. But those are good problems to have.
Shaughnessy: Right. And it’s worked out well with your classes, never having classes that are product pitches. You have a good mix of super high-tech and PCB 101 sort of classes.
Faucette: Well, keeping the topics diverse seems an obvious thing to do. Most of us who run this have been doing this for 30 years—either we have no hair or gray hair—we don’t know where the next generation’s coming from. However, every year we need to have a basic PCB 101. How are bare boards made, right? There are no university classes, really, that you can take for this. There’s no degree in this. No one knows where the next designers are coming from.
It’s difficult to enter this industry because you can’t get educated. So we always have a very basic 101 class. “This is how it’s manufactured.” because if you don’t understand how something’s manufactured, you cannot be successful designing it.
Shaughnessy: There’s definitely a thirst for knowledge, and it seems like everybody’s bounced back from the pandemic. It’s like everybody is just anxious to get out and walk maskless among people again.
Faucette: Yes, everybody’s out. I think you’re right; I don’t believe I noticed anybody wearing a face mask today. I think the comfort level for tradeshows is there, based on the attendance. I heard there were a lot of challenges in the parking lot, trying to figure out where to park.
Shaughnessy: That’s right, I barely got a space. Is there anything else you want to add?
Faucette: The only thing I would add is, it’s always our goal to find something fresh, new, and different. You don’t want the exact same set of exhibitors year after year. And they may not want the exact same attendees either. I’m not sure how much we’re responsible for it, but it’s been a successful pattern with us to have fresh turnover so it’s not the same faces each year. Lance Olive, our Marketing Director for the show, tells me that over half of the attendees are first-timers. It’s always good to have those familiar faces and rekindle relationships, but we love the freshness associated with a show that’s growing and extending its reach.
Shaughnessy: It’s definitely not just a regional show.
Faucette: Thanks for all the compliments. We appreciate that.
Shaughnessy: Thank you.