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Trade shows start to recover

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The b-to-b trade show business, which relies on travel, exhibitor spending and advertising, is witnessing a slow recovery as the nation bounces back from Sept. 11 and struggles out of a recession. Certain sectors, such as technology, still have a long way to go—and may not have bottomed out yet. But other trade show sectors, such as regional events and analyst conferences, are experiencing flat or mild growth.

Trade shows experienced setbacks in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11 as attendees cancelled travel plans, exhibitors pulled out of shows and marketing companies re-evaluated their commitments. At the Comdex show in Las Vegas Nov. 10-16, for example, attendance was 125,000, down about 37.5% from roughly 200,000 attendees in 2000.

Frederic Rosen, chairman-CEO of Key3Media Group Inc., which produces Comdex, NetWorld+Interop, Seybold Seminars and other IT trade shows, said the terrorist attacks exacerbated an already weak business climate for technology shows.

"In the first half of the year, shows were facing travel budgets being cut and weakness in the tech sector. When Sept. 11 happened, obviously that had an impact on people’s psyche," he said.

The attacks caused Comdex to beef up its security, requiring attendees to pass through metal detectors and have their bags searched.

In December, Key3Media laid off 135 employees, or roughly 18% of its staff. It currently has about 615 employees. Rosen declined to project how the business would do this year, although he said the biggest trade shows will survive.

"If you own the brands, when times get better, they will be the beneficiaries of what occurs," he said.

Comdex continues to expand its brand internationally with new regional shows. Late last month, the first Comdex Nordic show, in Gothenburg, Sweden, attracted 260 exhibitors and 30,000 attendees, which was twice the expected attendance.

Other conference producers say regional shows are not being hit as hard as large national or international events, at least on the attendee side.

David Korse, president-CEO of Imark Communications, Natick, Mass., said overall attendance for events after Sept. 11 was down just 4.5% from the comparable period in 2000. Imark produces the Information Technology Exhibition & Conference, @d:tech, ProjectWorld, SoftWorld and other IT conferences. Most of Imark’s conferences are regional, with 80% of attendees traveling 200 miles or less.

While attendance has not been hurt dramatically by the events of Sept. 11 or the economy, Imark is seeing exhibitor numbers drop.

"Our year started going south back in March and April, when some of the bellwether exhibitors drastically reduced or cut their marcomm budgets for the rest of the year," Korse said. Imark ended the year with flat revenue. It cut its staff to 200 employees, from 260.

Another impact of the slowdown is that exhibitors and attendees are waiting longer to make decisions about which shows to attend.

Some marketers are attending fewer large technology shows in favor of higher-level analyst conferences so they can reach influential decision-makers.

"Trade shows are one of the most expensive lead-generation tactics for marketing," said Allen Silveri, director of account services at Schubert Communications Inc., an advertising and marketing agency in Downingtown, Pa., whose clients include Motorola Broadband and TMA Resources.

Silveri said analyst conferences produced by Gartner Group, Forrester Research Inc. and other research companies are attractive venues for b-to-b clients because of the quality of the audience.

In a sign that the trade show business may be picking up, registration for the Exhibitor Show 2002 in Las Vegas next month is up over last year at this point, said Lee Knight, CEO of Exhibitor Net Magazine Group, which produces conferences for the event management industry. However, exhibitor sales for the show are down 6% from last year.

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