That's Show Biz

Are trade shows becoming dinosaurs? Observers of several recent big-name exhibitions might think so. In October, New York City's Internet World, which in past years had filled the Jacob K. Javits Center and spilled over into an outside tent, found itself relegated to a single corner of the building. At Chicago's Motivation Show in September, formerly a must-attend for buyers of incentives and premium merchandise, floor traffic was officially down 19 percent, though some attendees believe the real numbers were lower. "There was no traffic on the second and third days -- some exhibitors were not even in their booths," notes exhibitor Ramon Alvarez, president of Madrid-based GSAR Marketing, who has attended the show for three decades. "People blame September 11, but it was just as bad two years ago." And at last fall's COMDEX show in Vegas attendance was down 50 percent, according to some observers.

Even allowing for success stories in healthy sectors like construction, security, and health care, the exhibition industry overall is hurting. For shows held in the first quarter of 2002, net square footage fell by 5.5 percent and attendance by 8.1 percent compared to 2001, according to industry bible Tradeshow Week. Investment bank Veronis Suhler Stevenson predicts that exhibit space will decline 2.5 percent this year, and the Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR) forecasts that attendance will fall by as much as 4 percent, with no relief in sight. Those numbers may not seem high, but they represent a major retrenchment for an industry that from 1986 to 2000 saw annual growth rates of over 7 percent.

While the recession and September 11 haven't helped, the truth is exhibitions began showing a slump at least 18 months ago, experts say. As a result, the industry "is reeling," notes Rich Westerfield, president of TradeShow Marketing Institute, a Pittsburgh-based consultancy. "The situation is forcing a lot of introspection. [Companies] are asking, 'Is this really the best way to serve our constituents?' " Some—like Sony, which recently surprised the tech sector by announcing it would not exhibit at this fall's COMDEX but would instead host its own trade show—have evidently decided it isn't the best way.

Talkin' Trade Show Blues

The main drawback of the industry doing so well for so long was that many exhibitors "never had to look at their ROI," points out Julia O'Connor, president of Trade Show Training in Richmond, VA. "Now, we have a faster, more global economy, and people want instant results. But unless you're doing a consumer show where you can sell products off the table, trade shows are relationship events. Selling airplanes or nuclear power plants takes a long time."

And it takes even longer when exhibitors approach trade shows like any other marketing opportunity. "Most exhibitors don't realize exhibition marketing is different from cold calling," says Steven Hacker, president of the International Association for Exhibition Management (IAEM) in Dallas. "One major way show organizers can increase the value of their events is by educating exhibitors in the right sales approach -- which begins by determining what their goals are." Whether it's to network with existing customers, find new ones, or both, show managers can point exhibitors in the right direction with, for instance, tips in a newsletter or on the show's Web site. Exhibitors may or may not follow through, Hacker notes, "but organizers must provide the information. In this economy, they must do everything possible to educate and support exhibitors."

For example, Peter Eelman, vice president of exhibitions at the Association for Manufacturing Technology in McLean, VA, holds a free, two-day training program for exhibitors six months before the AMT's biennial Chicago powwow, the International Manufacturing Technology Show. About a third of AMT's 1,300 exhibitors take part, notes Eelman, who believes the program is an important reason for IMTS' success.

The AMT, which has offered the training for 15 years, is "a model when it comes to exhibitor education," says one of Eelman's trainers, Susan Friedmann, a Lake Placid, NY-based consultant known as "the trade show coach." Organizers lacking the time or means to carry out such elaborate training might consider offering it via teleconferencing, she adds—but whatever exhibitor program you provide, make it mandatory for first-timers: "You want to make sure [exhibitors] do well so they come back next year."

But not all trade shows are in trouble. A September agribusiness expo in Cuba made front-page news when it earned $90 million in contracts for American farm products on a single weekend in Havana. That a food show was a success is no surprise to Doug Ducate, president of the Center for Exhibition Industry Research in Chicago. "You can't paint the exhibition industry with a broad brush," he argues. "Events serve the industries they're in. For industries like IT and telecommunications that are in disarray, it's impossible to hold a robust event."

While show organizers in those sectors wait for the economy to improve, they can take comfort knowing that the industry is doing some serious soul-searching. In July, IAEM held the first-ever exhibition industry summit; the historic gathering produced a 10-page "manifesto" in which the key theme was the importance of serving the changing needs of shows' customers, exhibitors, and visitors. And if technology has made some expos redundant (why go to Vegas when you can learn about Microsoft's new toys on the Web?), in-person marketing will never go away. "The most influential part of any conversation comes through nonverbal channels," notes psychologist Frank McAndrew of Knox College in Galesburg, IL. "We evolved to deal with each other face to face. If you take that away, it takes away the heart and soul of the interaction."