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It's slow business in show business

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Remember to get a refund for that plane ticket to Denver later this month. The Direct Marketing Association DMA net.marketing fall conference, like many others, has been cancelled.

It’s a tough time for trade shows. Rising travel costs, a sluggish economy and skepticism about the value of attending trade shows has hit the exhibition industry hard. For the first time in years, the industry is looking at a decline.

Never were the troubles in the exhibition industry more obvious than on August 20, when three separate shows bit the dust. Intermedia Group postponed the November 5-6 eBusiness IT Operations and Management Forum/West; Basex pulled the plug on its Application Service Provider Executive Summit; and The Book Industry Summit was excised from the agenda of publishing executives indefinitely. That same week, unconfirmed rumors flew that advertising, automotive and packaged-goods industry shows were on the ropes.

Latest numbers

Companies that specialize in running trade shows collect revenues of about $12 billion annually, and about 20% of the average corporate b-to-b marketing budget is allocated to events, said Michael Hughes, director of research services for Tradeshow Week Inc., Los Angeles.

In research expected to be released next week, Tradeshow Week will show that key measurements such as square footage, number of exhibitors and attendance were down by single-digit percentages in the first six months of 2001.

That will be the first time the industry has seen a downturn in years, and the numbers could be worse in coming months, Hughes said. Tradeshow Week wont disclose specific numbers until it releases them in print and on the Web.

"Trade shows are affected later in a downturn because people tend to buy space and plan to go to shows long in advance," Hughes said. "Also, some companies are more reluctant to pull out of a show because they are [held only] once a year."

Pat Meier, who launched the ongoing Lunch@Pieros press event at Comdex 16 years ago, said exhibitors are trimming events out of their budgets when they cant prove return on investment. She said marketing managers are looking for ways to showcase their wares but are doing so away from the competition of a trade show floor.

"This reminds us of the slowdown of the early 1990s, when agencies and companies had to get creative with restricted marketing dollars," said Meier, president of Pat Meier Associates Public Relations in Mill Valley, Calif.

LaNay Kitzing, VP-sales and marketing for Live Marketing Inc., Chicago, said the old rules dont apply when it comes to trade shows.

"Companies that used to go to glad-hand or to support an association or to gird against the perception of going out of business are finding those reasons invalid in todays economy," said Kitzing, who advises such companies as SBC Communications Inc. and Automatic Data Processing Inc. on trade show marketing.

But fewer big trade shows wont affect all marketers.

Charles Lucier, senior-VP, chief marketing officer and chief knowledge officer for Booz-Allen & Hamilton Inc., New York, has always limited the scope of his companys event marketing to focused executive conferences.

The business and technology consultancy does about a half-dozen shows a year, Lucier said. While Booz-Allen has no plans to cut back, it also has no plans to appear at broad shows anytime in the future, he said.

"Well only really do a booth when there is an expo tied to a specific conference in which we are participating," Lucier said. "And thats not going to change anytime soon.’’

Surviving giants

Some shows are bucking the trend, at least so far.

IDG World Expo, Framingham, Mass., had record attendance at its Macworld Conference & Expo last month in New York. Its LinuxWorld Conference & Expo, held last month in San Francisco, also showed strength.

Two of the largest trade show eventsComdex, managed by Comdex Worldwide Inc., a unit of Key3Media Group Inc., Los Angeles, and Consumer Electronics Expo, managed by the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association, Arlington, Va.are planning to leverage their history and size to become must-spend events.

Earlier this year, Frank & Associates began working on advertising to promote the 2002 International Consumer Electronics Show, scheduled for Jan. 8-11 in Las Vegas. Print ads for the show began rolling out in August, targeted at between eight and 10 vertical markets.

Gerry Frank, president and creative director of the Ellicott City, Md.-based agency, said the print ads, which are running in a variety of trade magazines, will be adapted to postcard mailings and brochures.

"Were being a little more cognizant of budgets," Frank said, pointing to savings that can be realized by extending a single creative across different media.

The campaigns overall message is that CES sheer size makes it the one show that electronics executives cannot afford to miss.

One ad, targeted at retailers, shows a consumer standing before an array of electronics products; the copy reads: "Every year you get one chance to see where the entire consumer electronics industry is headed. Get there first."

Comdex, which usually draws 200,000 people annually, expects to sell about as much space as it did last year, said Kim Myhre, president of Comdex Worldwide.

But there is a telling counterpoint. To date, Comdex has sent three of four direct mail pieces to more than 1 million prospective show attendees. In each of the three, Comdex hotel rates have been lowered.

"Were expecting attendance to be down slightly, but were tracking pretty well and remain cautiously optimistic," Myhre said. "In some ways, weve been the beneficiaries of other conferences going away and publications having trouble. We become an alternative. Were hopeful."

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