Brace yourselves

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Double-digit declines in key metrics show events industry faces bumpy road to recovery The industry overview released in April by the Center for Exhibition Industry Research did not deliver good news. The recession has eroded the performance of b-to-b events, and there is little indication that a rebound will occur in the near term. The overall industry saw a decline of 12.5% in 2009, four times greater than any loss in a previous year, according to the CEIR Index. The annual study, conducted since 2000, compares year-over-year data related to four key metrics from about 13,000 events. All four of those metrics saw declines last year. Net square footage fell 13.9%. Exhibitions shed 11.9% of exhibitors and 8.3% of attendees, and revenue fell by 15.8%. Of the 11 industry segments that researchers reviewed, all performed negatively. “That's the first time that has ever happened,” said Doug Ducate, president-CEO of CEIR. “Our concern for the industry is concern for the economy. Can we sustain the recovery that we're currently experiencing and feeling good about? Frankly, we think the jury is out on that.” The jury also is still out on whether many exhibitors ever will return to their pre-recession heft. “During this downturn, which has lasted longer and gone deeper than any in our history, we have seen adjustments made by exhibiting companies—for example, downsizing and taking less equipment,” Ducate said. “The question in everybody's mind is: Have they gotten comfortable with this new low-level, low-cost participation and that's where they're going to stay or, once things begin to really improve, will they go back to the types of things they were doing before and reinstate larger spaces and equipment? We suspect there is not a uniform answer to that.” The industry number to watch will be attendance, an area that has shown anecdotal evidence of improving, Ducate said. Attendance serves as a leading indicator. When it rises, it is generally followed by growth in the number of exhibitors, sizes of booths and, eventually, revenue. “There is very little [organizers] can do to replace revenue at this time,” Ducate said. “There are no discretionary marketing dollars for providing sponsorships and things like that.” Some bright spots do exist, however. Nielsen Expositions, for example, reported growth in attendance, square footage and number of exhibitors, while revenue held steady at its ASD Las Vegas event (see Show Spotlight below). The show benefited from an exhibiting community that historically has favored lean booths, helping insulate it from the cutbacks that have cost other events a portion of their square footage. Throughout the industry, organizers are focusing on reshaping themselves in ways that reinforce attendee and exhibitor participation in an event, Ducate said. “The shift is adding value, making sure events have added value for the exhibitors and attendees,” he said. “That's the thrust today. If they do that, and they do that right, the revenue ultimately will come back.” George Jage, president of World Tea Expo, demonstrates that kind of thinking. He helped keep attendance robust at the company's 2008 show by investing in the expansion of the event's education offerings, a route many organizers are taking. But in 2009 the show saw significant declines. The event will co-locate with New Hope Natural Media's Natural Marketplace Tradeshow in June this year at the Las Vegas Convention Center, partnering with an event that potentially has strong crossover appeal to its audience. The shows will cut costs by hosting a joint reception for attendees and finding other areas where they can merge initiatives. But Jage's first concern is continuing to serve the growing tea industry, not saving money. “Making sure the show is a success is important, regardless of the economic situation,” he said. “We have to be credible in the product we offer.” M
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