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Questioning Doug Ducate

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Doug Ducate is a plainspoken guy who has been around the events industry longer than most. The president-CEO of the Center for Exhibition Industry Research—perhaps the industry's No. 1 advocate—has been in the business for more than 35 years. Last month, the Exhibit Designers & Producers Association honored his contributions with its Hazel Hays Award, adding a fifth major industry award to his collection. Media Business caught up with Ducate to talk about an industry that has outgrown more than wooden exhibit structures and formal attire.

MB: What are some of the more significant shifts you've seen in the industry?

Ducate: If you look at the travel data since 2001, the one industry sector that has never recovered is the individual traveling salesperson. The reliance on electronic and telephone communication has meant that exhibitions have become a last bastion of face-to-face marketing. It's changed the role [of an event]. The No. 1 reason to exhibit used to be to bring a new product to market. Today, many companies with a new product don't wait for an exhibition. Successful companies are there to have conversations with their clients, not just to sell them something. They're using the medium to find out what their clients are doing today, what they're going to need.

MB: What does that mean for show organizers? Does it put emphasis on the conference portion of the show?

Ducate: It does. It puts more emphasis on all the other aspects: press conferences, technical meetings, networking activities. It's a constant mill of business and, as a result, many of the traditional social aspects tend to be diminished. Things like award presentations and speeches and state of the industry addresses or membership reports have become much less significant, in favor of quality time to talk to one another.

MB: International attendance is on the rise. What's behind those numbers?

Ducate: We see the rise because it took a pretty good dip after 2001 and 2002. Some of the increases that we're seeing are getting us back to where we would have been. Part of it is some of the things organizers are doing, like co-locations. Certainly the easing of travel issues. [The industry is] still challenged, particularly by visa issues.

MB: Are you seeing results yet from the slate of changes approved last year?

Ducate: It's one of those mixed bags. [Officials] can report some excellent numbers on wait times on an average. The focus from the organizers' side is to say, "Let's not talk about the global average; let's talk about the countries that are most important to us." That's China, India, Brazil. It is taking too long, and it is costing us. I don't question statistics from a global perspective, but that doesn't solve my problem in China.

MB: Show producers are going after emerging global markets. How is that developing?

Ducate: [The global market] is expanding rapidly. That's going to be a huge competition. You've got the industrialized world looking at this giant growing economy, saying "How do we convince them to buy American" instead of whatever it may be. It's a competition for exporting. We're going to continue to see lots of energy and events being produced as these developing economies strengthen and get more capital to invest.

MB: What are you researching right now?

Ducate: Our new major undertaking has been a project on attracting the X and Y generations to exhibitions. We recognize that they have a different outlook. We've got a whole new challenge on the organizer side. We need to reach out and make sure that the X and Y generations and the Millenials put the same premium on face-to-face that their parents did. You've got to be willing to change your business model.

Let me give you one tiny example of where that's already worked in most cases. Dress code. We've gone from business to business casual. What's the next step?

MB: Jeans and a T-shirt?

Ducate: Bingo!

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