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Floor fight: Show bars rival portals

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Competition among three rival packaging industry Web hubs, already full-grown, is now focused on 1.2 million square feet of exhibit floor space.

Specifically, a dispute has erupted over why two of the portals--PackagingInsider.com and VerticalNet Inc.'s Packaging Network.com--are being barred from exhibiting at PackExpo, while the third portal, PackExpo.com, will be occupying a booth at the show in Chicago on November 5-9.

At stake is a piece of the action in a $450 billion industry.

The two excluded portals charge that PackExpo.com is unfairly exploiting its link to Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute, the Arlington, Va.-based trade association that produces PackExpo and owns a 50% equity stake in for-profit PackExpo.com.

Jim Harvey, national sales manager of Packaging Network.com, wants to exhibit at PackExpo, which is widely regarded as the premiere packaging industry event. "It's a terrific show," he said.

But PMMI said its bylaws will not permit dot-coms to exhibit. "Clearly it has always been statedthrough its bylaws and its rules and regulations that you have to manufacture a packaging product to exhibit at PackExpo," explained Matt Croson, PMMI's director of communications, who also holds the same position with PackExpo.com.

But Tim O'Rourke, VP-operations for PackagingInsider.com, doesn't buy that explanation, because PackExpo.com is permitted to exhibit. "Don't come out and make excuses and blow smoke up my skirt," he said.

Access denied

PMMI's explanation for PackExpo.com's presence at the show is that it is the event's official Web site. "It was created in 1998 to support the show," Croson said of the site, where in addition to conducting e-commerce, packaging industry professionals can register for the show and book hotel rooms.

Croson added that PackExpo, which already has 1.2 million square feet of exhibit space, would be overrun by law firms, consulting firms and other service companies if it allowed exhibitors other than manufacturers. "We're doing our attendees a disservice if we open the door to every dot-com," Croson said.

Harvey counters that the policy itself is a disservice to PMMI members. "The members of this association are being kept from the market and hundreds of thousands of end-users that Packaging Network enjoyed last year and the thousands of leads that we are producing," he said. "They are being kept from those potential sales. And this is done through an association that is supposed to be promoting their business."

Meanwhile, an unapologetic PackExpo.com plans to press its advantage.

"Not only are we the only [dot-com] exhibitor, but our location within the hall makes it so you can't get into the hall without going by our booth," said Stuart Stafman, CEO of PackExpo.com. "This is the largest trade show in the packaging community, and nobody is going to leave there without knowing who we are."

Nor does Stafman pull his punches when explaining the exclusion of his rivals. "The fact that [PMMI is] an association doesn't mean they have to be stupid," he said.

The practice of trade shows excluding competitive media from exhibiting is not new, said Skip Cox, president of Exhibit Surveys Inc., a Red Bank, N.J.-based trade show research firm. Cox added that even associations are waking up to the fact that "it's a competitive world out there."

But Thomas Kemp, CEO of Penton Media Inc., which counts Internet World and other trade shows among its properties, said true competition means opening the doors to all competitors. "It's inconsistent with free enterprise and our way of life," he said. "I don't mean to overblow this, but I've seen how associations try to control these things. I think it's a disgrace."

Michael Hagan, COO of VerticalNet, which includes Packaging Network.com among its 56 online vertical portals, said that one trade show won't prevent his company from winning customers. "Just because we're told by some trade show that we can't be there, that does not mean we won't be able to gain market share," he said. "I don't think companies that are looking at the Internet as an alternative sales channel are looking to the operators of trade shows for advice on strategy."

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