All is Not Well
by Michael Hough
I keep hearing from our industry spokespeople that all is well
with exhibitions and tradeshows. The latest is a statement in
a publication read by our exhibitors that proclaimed "...
the fact is there are mega shows that are doing exceedingly well
This may be a good spin for external consumption but the fact
is that most shows are not doing exceedingly well. The anecdotal
feedback I am getting directly from show managers is that a lack
of qualified attendees is their number one problem -- and the
primary reason why exhibitors continue to scale back their involvement
To test the validity of this hypothesis, I researched Tradeshow
Week data on all shows over 150,000 nsf held from January through
June, 2003. Here is what I found:
- The 81 shows had an average 2.2% increase in attendance.
- But 36 of the 81 shows (or 44%) declined in attendance between
2002 and 2003.
- Four shows that moved to Las Vegas in 2003 had an average
increase of 49.6%. Excluding these shows, the other 77 decreased
in attendance by 0.8%.
I would venture to say the actual situation is probably worse
because it is well known that many shows exaggerate their numbers.
Our industry spokespeople want to call this decline a temporary
fluke due to 9/11, the economy or other such fleeting phenomena.
They say we will eventually return to the glory days of the late
90s. I do not agree unless we as an industry act in concert.
In my opinion we have a systemic problem: many qualified buyers
are not attending the events we produce because they no longer
perceive a value in them, or their bosses do not perceive they
have a value to the business. This is particularly true among
the next generation who believe they can learn everything needed
right at their desktop.
What to Do
We as an industry must come together to re establish the intrinsic
benefits of meeting face to face. This has been the objective
of the Exhibition Industry Promotion Campaign (EIPC) which I helped
launch in 1995 but which has languished over the past few years.
This opinion is confirmed by a recent study conducted by Jacobs
Kenner & Kent. They surveyed 120 high level executives who
organize conventions and exhibitions. 72 responded (half association,
half for-profit) and said their highest priority would be to "create
and implement an industry promotion campaign." Very few mentioned
reducing exhibitor costs as a primary issue, but that is what
our appointed spokespeople claim is the industry's problem.
We need to completely reinvent this industry promotion campaign
- Appoint a nonpartisan umbrella group to manage the effort—one
that is widely respected by everyone in the industry.
- Undertake fresh and relevant research which will establish
the bottomline value of attending events, such as "those
who attend their industry's annual convention are 27% more likely
to be promoted."
- Disseminate this research widely via a comprehensive advertising
and PR campaign aimed at C level executives in corporate America,
just as magazines and other media do.
- Appoint a charismatic spokesperson to act as Chief Marketing
Officer for our industry. This person would be responsible for
speaking out publically on our behalf, such as extolling the
industry's virtues on CNBC. And this CMO should be an executive
who has actual experience producing large and successful events.
Wouldn't such a campaign cost many millions? No, because the
ads (which typically represent the primary expense) would run
gratis in the 300+ business to business magazines owned by the
media conglomerates who also have a huge stake in the success
of tradeshows. I estimate a comprehensive (and successful) campaign
would cost less than $1 million per year.
How to finance such a campaign? Certainly not by taxing our
exhibitors as the Voluntary Contribution Plan does. Instead, all
should directly contribute commensurate with the benefit they
will receive from a more robust meetings industry. Here is how
this would work:
- The $1 million yearly cost would be allocated equitably among
the various industry segments based on the relative financial
benefit they receive from events, such as show organizers 60%,
direct suppliers 30% and indirect suppliers (e.g. hotels) 10%.
- Everyone from each segment then contributes at an agreed
upon formula. One such formula (as applied to for-profit organizers)
could be "one tenth of one percent of net profits."
A formula for CVBs could be "three tenths of a cent per
nsf for all Top 200 shows held in their city." And so forth
for associations, suppliers, etc.
We can continue to muddle along while our industry flat lines.
Or we can join together to turn things around. Which path do you
Michael Hough is an industry consultant and author of The
Profitable Trade Show. He welcomes discussion on this topic at