Veterans of IT reseller wars know all about microscopic margins and markets turning to mush. But there's an upside to the experience: survive a tour of duty in channel country and you learn skills that come in handy wherever your career leads.
Just ask Martin Lack.
In the early to mid-80s, Lack was among the pioneering band of marketers who helped write the rule book for the burgeoning PC reseller industry.
He served as marketing manager at Arcom Pacific, a second-tier reseller-cum-distributor with national ambitions. It was the era when a pre-One.Tel Jodee Rich ruled the distributor roost with his company Imagineering and margins rarely dipped below 30 per cent.
Lack earned a reputation for holding innovative product launches that upstaged the bigger players.
Arcom Pacific eventually folded when it ran short of working capital, despite rocketing turnover - perhaps a harbinger for the dotcom syndrome.
But before the reseller mainstream felt the full impact of hard times, Lack had moved into consulting work. He now directs his own events and meetings management company, Martin Lack and Associates.
It could be argued he's jumped from the frying pan into the fire. In the past 12 months, the events and convention industry has seen general attendance figures plunge by between 30 per cent and 50 per cent.
Sydney and Melbourne have been affected more than Queensland, according to Meetings Industry Association of Australia CEO Jenny Lambert.
In terms of IT-specific events, the decrease is around 30 per cent, estimates Australian Computer Society national marketing manager Simon Kwan, and the drumbeat of cancelled conventions has quickened since the mid-September terrorist outrage in New York.
All this translates into the type of margin pressures that have become distressingly familiar to the reseller channel.
Lack says he is winning the battle by deploying the same market-understanding skills and outside-the-box thinking he learned in his reseller days. Fastidious attention to detail and heavy emphasis on using electronic technology to minimise costs are the hallmarks of his operation.
"We are a business that is totally electronically based and our key value is where an event's sponsors, stakeholders and delegates are all comfortable with e-mail," he says.
"It is a low-cost model that is distance-independent."
Unlike most conference organisers, Lack relies entirely on e-mail campaigns, rather than direct mail, faxes or telemarketing, to attract delegates to an event.
"With an e-mail campaign, you can get the first wave [of reaction] in a few hours, the next wave that night and the third wave 48 hours later.
"So you get information that you don't get from faxing or telemarketing."
Registration and ongoing contacts with delegates, sponsors and stakeholders, and even obtaining hotel floor plans, are done electronically.
"Face-to-face is expensive but using e-mail can create long-term relationships with the stakeholders so you understand in advance what issues they are facing."
Helped by a full-time staff of three, Lack annually runs about six conferences of 200 to 400 delegates each. In addition, he organises more than 50 luncheons (some attracting up to 500 people), breakfast seminars or half-day events a year.
"We have noticed the amount of sponsorship money out there is significantly reduced in the last three months.
"There are still organisations that want to take advantage of events but the money is not there for any form of marketing."
As with any cyclical downturn, "quality products are maintained and it is the weak and the poor events that suffer", Lack says.
His approach to producing what he calls "high-quality events at prices few people can compete with" appears to be working. "We haven't seen any drop-off in attendance; in fact, it is just the reverse."
Such results owe much to his service in the trenches of the IT and reseller markets, Lack says. "Guys like me with 30 years experience were brilliantly trained over the years to understand the market drivers and impediments in those areas.
"You can use exactly the same skills in this one."