Event Intelligence

Nov 19, 2015

Why are conference events so good for intelligence? Because they bring the experts together customers, competitors, government regulators, suppliers, ­academics and so forth – experts with information. From a collection perspective, people attend events with the objective of exchanging information, so they are keen to talk.

​Securetech, a tradeshow/conference that brings together 100+ booths exhibiting the latest in safety/security products and services, thousands of expected visitors, four conference tracks (cyber security, counter-terrorism, emergency management, and personal protective equipment), and dozens of experts from private sector, Canadian and Foreign governments including speakers from National Defence, Homeland Security, police forces, municipalities – all talking about topics like unmanned systems for first responders, emergency operations centers, building resilience against terrorism, integrated systems for first responders today and tomorrow, cyber protection and the technical innovation that drives, well, everything. This is an event where security and safety experts and organizations are gathering to share information. Given the sheer number of information collection opportunities at Securetech, I thought this would be a good opportunity to write to you about my favourite area of expertise – competitive intelligence

Described as the act of defining, gathering, analyzing, and distributing intelligence about products, customers, or competitors, competitive intelligence supports executive strategic decision-making. It should not be confused with corporate or industrial espionage, which use illegal and/or unethical methods to gain an unfair competitive advantage.    

Event intelligence is a popular theme with competitive intelligence professionals. Competitive Intelligence Magazine (the magazine for members of the Strategic and Competitive Intelligence Professionals – SCIP) has a regular column on it (I write it). There is a book about it put out by the Competitive Intelligence Foundation, and there have been countless webinars from leading competitive intelligence organizations.  

Intelligence professionals are well aware of the potential of trade shows. For example, Vernon Prior, a well respected, Australian intelligence practitioner wrote in the 90s that, at trade shows, a “Properly organized, competent, well-briefed team should be able to gather more useful information than they could ever hope to collect in a full year in any other set of circumstances.” 

Ten years later, Joe Goldberg (formerly senior director of business intelligence at Motorola, and before that a top notch CIA officer) wrote: “Conference and trade show events are the most concentrated, productive and cost-effective means to spotlight strategic trends, and they often go unnoticed in normal intelligence activities. Trade shows, conferences, and seminars furnish the greatest collection potential in the shortest span of time for the least amount of money. The many formal and informal activities at the event provide a variety of collection opportunities. Over the years, a small community of business intelligence (BI) experts within Motorola has made the most of trade events as a primary collection opportunity”.

I have led many groups on trade show intelligence missions and can attest to the extraordinary opportunity that events bring. So why are trade shows and other events so good for intelligence? Because they bring the experts together customers, competitors, government regulators, suppliers, academics and so forth – experts with information. From a collection perspective, people attend events with the objective of exchanging information so they are keen to talk. Validation of information is also simpler at events. There are always sources to validate information at the event – again, everyone is there. At one event, my task was to validate a rumor about a major technology development happening within the next year. The show attendees included scientists who certainly would be involved in this activity, government officers who are also part of the area, companies with leading edge technology, academics and others who would have been consulted on emerging developments. Validating the rumor was straightforward and quick. 

The key to taking advantage of the opportunities of events such as Securetech for developing important intelligence lies with the start of Vernon’s quote “properly organized”. Event intelligence involves a rigid planning and execution discipline. Here are a few organization tips:

Tip 1Help your organization focus their intelligence and information needs – help them figure out what they need to know. 
What are the specific intelligence needs of your organization? Do you need to update technology profiles? Customer profiles? Competitor profiles? Are you trying to get a sense of emerging opportunities? Know what it is that you need to know. 

I was at a lab equipment show for a safety and security related company to help them identify potential equipment to be put on their long term acquisition list. They needed to know where the new technologies are heading – should they put off some current potential acquisitions in favour of new technologies coming out in the next 5-10 years? 

The trade show was particularly good for this as all major lab equipment companies were there with their R&D personnel. 

Another public sector client was looking for innovative policy solution-programs for biotechnology. The bio show, with its dozens of government pavilions and numerous ministerial delegates, was a great place to gather this information. 

Tip 2: Overlay your information and intelligence needs with the event activities or, put another way, make sure you know where you will be spending your time at the event. 
The thing about events is that they are very temporal. Once the event is over, there is no going back. Accordingly, it is important that you plan where and when you will spend your time to ensure that you take advantage of the right opportunities and do not waste your time doing things that are not important for your organization. Review all event materials – exhibitors, workshops, presenters, and registered delegates and match them to the information needs you identified under Tip #1. For Securetech, look over all the conference titles. Which ones interest you? Look at who is speaking. Look at all the exhibitors. Which are important to you? Look at all of this from two perspectives:

  1. Does the speaker/exhibitor have the information that I need? Match the booth, speaker, or panel topic to your organization’s information needs.
  2. Will the people who will be attending that particular event (eg. people who will attend and listen to the unmanned vehicle session) be people that I want to talk to? Do I want to hear the questions they will ask? If yes, then they are likely going to be at that particular session and you can talk to them either before or after the panel.

Every time you note something in the program that you are interested in, put it in your event plan, but be sure to link it to your objective(s) in attending the workshop, or visiting the booth etc. Have others from your organization (for example senior management) look at pre-show materials to identify areas they would like to see covered. I use a form similar to the one shown here to help summarize everything I want to do at an event. 

Sometimes I have gone to shows with the sole objective, not of collecting information, but meeting people who will be of help to me in future intelligence initiatives – call this creating a new network. It’s still an important intelligence objective for the event but, to figure out who you need to meet at the show, you need to know what your organization’s longer term information needs are.

Tip 3: Find out who will be going to the event and see if they can help you.
No matter how organized I am, I can’t be in more than one place at a time, yet I invariably have identified two or three panels that I want to attend that are occurring at the same time. I also am limited in how much time I can effectively gather information during an event and, given the information opportunities at events, my needs are always greater than the time I have, so I either need to cut down on my information collection objectives or find other people who can help me. The starting point is sharing my plan with others. I let my co-workers who are going to be going to the event know what information I am looking for that they may come across, I let government and association executives know what I am looking for that may be part of their domain. I share. The more eyes and ears you have at an event helping you out, the higher the likelihood that someone will find the information you need.

How do you get these people to help you? Generally, it’s a quid pro quo – you help them with their information needs and they will help you with yours. Most people have collection objectives at events and could probably use the extra help. Also, I try not to overtask them. I ask where they plan to go, what booths they are going to visit, who they are meeting with, what sessions etc. and say to them: “Since you are already going to be visiting that booth /going to that session, would you mind asking a few questions for me?” I did this at one biotech show and ended up having over 100 people 
actively helping me collect information. Networking is important in intelligence, and really pays off at trade shows. 

Tip 4: Contact people that you want to talk to before you go to the show.
Contact as many of your information targets as is appropriate before the show. Since you have already identified people to interview at the event (either by booth number, workshop, or delegate), consider ­contacting them to set up a time to talk at the event, but only if the element of surprise is not important to your plan. Conference time is short and precious. Many delegates have their available show meeting times committed almost a year in advance.


I have a lot more trade show tips to share, and will do more of this in the future. Also to follow, will be advice how to collect effectively at events, how to use social media to assist in collection at events, the use of analytics at events, what to do after the event, counterintelligence at events, and so forth. But for now, these four planning tips should help get you started. 

Alison Bourey (another competitive intelligence practitioner) estimates that companies waste 30 to 50% of their entire trade show budgets by not having the sort of collection plan and associated mindset talked about in this article. Whether you are going to Securetech this month, or other events are on your horizon, hopefully this article will help you avoid this waste.

To help you prepare for Securetech in particular, this issue of FrontLine includes an article that provides background on the show itself, and an interview with CADSI President Christyn Cianfarani with information about the activities at the event. An article focusing on unmanned systems for first responders is one of the roundtables that are part of the Emergency Management portion of the conference. Another article is based on an example from Securetech’s Innovation Zone, with information from the National Research Council. Call it part of the background research for your Securetech event intelligence program. 

Jonathan Calof is FrontLine’s Executive Editor.
© FrontLine Security 2015