The new twist, of course, is the Internet—which was in its nascence 10 years ago—and how its evolution has affected trade shows and conferences.
There had been concerns a few years back that the Web might erode trade show attendance. That, of course, turned out to be an idle threat, since a consensus has already emerged that the Internet serves as a supplement to trade shows and is hardly a substitute. And despite the proliferation of virtual trade shows during the past few years, the Web simply can not compete with getting out into the field and pressing the flesh.
Steve Miller, a trade show consultant whose clients include some of the country’s top trade shows, including PackExpo and ConAgg/ConExpo, said trade shows and the Internet should fit hand-in-glove.
"The strength of the trade show remains face-to-face interaction, which doesn’t exist on the Internet. But trade shows are a finite period of time, whereas the Web is 24-7," he said. "The smart marketer is looking at how to use the Internet to communicate effectively with his trade show clients during the year, and then everyone can meet in person at the annual class reunion."
Even Internet-related marketers continue to sing the praises of physical trade shows. "They’re still the largest single qualified lead pool in the shortest period of time," said Daniel Horgan, VP-sales at TS Central, which provides Internet services to enhance trade shows.
Horgan, who exhibits TS Central’s products at 12 trade shows annually, added, "There’s no other medium that can provide 150 sales leads in three days."
But it’s how the economy shapes up over the next few months—and not the latest bells and whistles in, say, Webcasting—that is preoccupying trade show executives. With most major trade shows booked well in advance, they have been able to avoid any dip in revenue so far this year. But if the economy keeps moving toward a recession, sponsors may be reluctant to commit to shows that won’t happen for at least another six months.
The trade show industry mirrors the overall economy, but often lags by six months, according to Doug Ducate, president-CEO of the Center for Exhibition Industry Research. He said, however, that even in a recession, trade shows have exhibited great resilience.
But Phil McKay, group manager of Penton Media’s trade show division, which has about 180 trade shows representing 40% of the company’s overall revenue, said: "If the slide continues, it’s definitely going to affect our bottom line. There’s only so far your marketing dollar will go."
Steven Hacker, president of the International Association for Exhibition Managers, said that in a troubled economy buyers go to trade shows with expectations they want to meet. "They’re not just there to kick the tires," he said.
Lee Knight, founder and CEO-editor in chief of the Exhibitor Magazine Group said, "When times get tough, the density of buyers goes up. Travel budgets may be cut, but budgets don’t get cut for the buyers. Attendance may go down, but it doesn’t matter."
Bob Krakoff, chairman-CEO of Advanstar Communications, who for 22 years ran Reed Elsevier plc’s Exhibition Cos., was equally sanguine. "Whatever the industry, people come in good times with big budgets and with smaller budgets in bad times," he said. The economy "may temper purchasing but [attendees] want to be there, belly to belly, for the exposure. When people go out to Vegas for the major shows, they’re not wasting their time gambling."
Krakoff said the company’s 108 exhibitions and conferences represent a majority of Advanstar’s annual revenue, although he wouldn’t provide specific figures. He’s added five trade shows to the company’s lineup this year.
The number of shows VNU Expositions sponsors has increased dramatically since VNU USA subsidiary Bill Communications last summer obtained the trade show assets of what was once Miller Freeman USA. Through the acquisition, VNU has increased the number of trade shows it sponsors from 30 in 2000 to 78 this year. Revenues, meanwhile, are projected to more than triple this year compared with last year, said Jim Bracken, president of VNU Expositions. He declined to provide specific numbers.
"When there’s down times in advertising revenue, you have as many shows as we do—and the shows aren’t vulnerable—they’re likely to even out the trough in revenue," Bracken said.
IAEM’s Hacker predicts that if the downward trends in print spending continue, trade shows will eventually become the preferred b-to-b marketing medium.