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Trade show managers cautious about 2003

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It’s going to be a bumpy ride for trade show executives this year.

A survey released last month found that very few trade show managers anticipate their events will grow in 2003. The survey, conducted on behalf of the International Association for Exhibition Management (IAEM), polled 78 members of the group’s Washington, D.C., chapter, or 25% of the association’s total membership. It found that only 18% of trade show managers expect their exhibit floors will be larger this year than last. Just 21% expect attendance at their events will increase. The survey did not pose any other questions.

A more comprehensive IAEM study released in December showed that after a decade of growth, the trade show industry is facing record declines in attendance and exhibit space because of the economic downturn and lingering effects of the Sept. 11 attacks.

That survey, titled "Inside the Storm," polled 150 major trade show organizers nationwide. Thirty-one percent of those respondents reported turnout at all of their events had increased in the past two years, but 22% said that some or all of their events had shrunk in size. About 20% said some of their shows had a spike in attendance during that period. Shows sponsored by associations have fared worse than independent events.

Competitive challenges

Trade show executives are confronted with several challenges.

For one, there is increasing competition from proprietary events. These events are created by companies, primarily in the technology field, to target existing customers and prospects. Corporate road shows, in which companies toss their wares into a Winnebago and hit the road for a "rolling" marketing campaign, are also on the rise. (See story on page 1).

What’s more, the trade show industry tends to lag the general economy by at least a year.

"We see a lot of uncertainty, a lot of holding onto money, and continue to feel the [economic] effects of the last 18 months," said Chris Brown, senior VP-conventions for the National Association of Broadcasters.

Attendance at last year’s NAB annual meeting, which usually draws 100,000 attendees, fell 15% from a year earlier. Brown said attendance for this year’s conference, scheduled for April 5-10 in Las Vegas, should be back to normal levels. But if there is a war in Iraq, "it’ll throw a monkey wrench into our situation," he added.

Brown said trade show executives need to be innovative to maintain events’ appeal in a time of declining attendance. "The people making headway are re-investing in product and developing new services for attendees and exhibitors," he said, citing as an example having a sports bar at an event to offer attendees an alternative place to network.

Wayne Jacobs, CEO of Jacobs Jenner + Kent, a marketing research company that conducted the "Inside the Storm" survey, said trade show executives need to regroup. "Organizers have relied on their own perspective for too long without developing an in-depth understanding of attendees and exhibitors," he said. "It wasn’t necessary in the past, but now budgets are tighter, staffs are smaller, and buyers are more discriminating. Yet organizers still have not looked inside their audiences to see what they’re really about."

The three biggest marketing challenges cited in the "Inside the Storm" study were: increasing first-time attendees; boosting overall response rates; and getting attendees’attention.

Some industry observers argue that, for b-to-b marketers, less is quite possibly more when it comes to current trade shows.

"There’s lighter traffic, but the quality is quite good," said Michael Westcott, executive director-marketing for the George P. Johnson Co., which produces more than 4,000 events annually. Clients include IBM Corp., DaimlerChrysler, General Motors Co. and Siebel Systems Inc. "The chances are the people who do show up are there to shop, and that’s an issue people tend to overlook."

However, Jacobs said exhibitors would rather the aisles be filled. "They don’t want just a few buyers walking around," he said.

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