by Brian Casey | June 01, 2016

The trade-show industry is huge and yet, despite its influence, goes somewhat unrecognized in the general course of all the events being organized and carried out each year. It is time, then, to give pause and consider its merits, its growth and its essential impact on the association marketplace. Trade shows have become vital to the operating revenue of many nonprofit associations, and in fact, for many, show profits are now frequently the greatest source of income, often dwarfing dues revenue. Further, trade shows generate more than 9,400 business-to-business events each year in the United States, a figure that represents almost half of all the B2B events taking place in the world.

In the United States, trade shows are visited by 32.5 million attendees, attract 1.3 million exhibiting companies and generate $9.4 billion in gross revenue, according to the Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR). These are extraordinary numbers and they take on even more significance when one considers the economic impact the industry has on job creation, business tourism and tax revenue to states, counties and cities.

In Praise of the Industry. The trade-show industry is really a very simple concept. Trade shows exist principally to provide an appropriate environment in which buyers and sellers can meet in person to conduct business. Of course, there are many other reasons why exhibitors eagerly support trade shows: They serve as a platform for boosting brand equity, introducing new products and services to the marketplace, visiting with existing customers and meeting new prospective ones, gathering market intelligence, engaging with distributors and sometimes just trying to figure out what the heck is going on in a particular industry.

When one scrapes away all of the minutiae, a trade show is fundamentally a mirror of the industry or sector it serves. Which is why making generalizations about the performance of all trade shows often leads to very incorrect conclusions. For example, because the financial conditions of different industries are often dissimilar, trade shows in one sector—such as government services—might be performing poorly while events in another sector—like information technology—could be running at a white-hot pace.

The Value of CEIR Data. Like many trade-show professionals, association executives and their staff have come to rely upon the index report published annually by CEIR since 2000. It is considered the gold standard of the trade-show industry’s data reporting. CEIR also provides quarterly index reports that concisely summarize the industry’s most recent overall results using four key metrics: net square feet of exhibit space sold; professional attendance (attendees); number of exhibiting companies; and total event gross revenue.

Reading and comprehending such performance data might seem to be a tedious, arcane and time-consuming process (this year’s edition is 196 pages), but the CEIR Index makes extensive use of easy-to-understand charts as part of its summaries. For example, based on a collection of data from a combined 14 business sectors, the four key performance metrics have been tracked for the last 16 years and the results are delineated in a summary chart (as seen on the left-hand page). A quick glance evidences how each of the metrics are trending, and a fifth trend line reflects the combination of all four key metrics.

What stands out dramatically in the chart is the devastating impact the Great Recession had on the exhibition industry beginning in 2008, how long it lasted and its robust recovery since. Also notable is how much trade-show revenues have leapt ahead of other industry metrics.

Such information is easy to analyze and absolutely essential for every industry stakeholder. And while the CEIR Index Report serves as a unique and useful source of historical industry information, its modern insight is especially priceless to trade-show organizers, investors and industry analysts when it comes to forecasting future trends and results (and budgeting accordingly).

How Valid is the CEIR Data? A team of CEIR economists analyzes different elements of industry data that have been shared by more than 600 trade-show organizers about their events each year. The results are then sorted into 14 different industry sectors such as business services, education, communications and information technology, to name just a few. Comparing data and results in different industry sectors allows for a more accurate analysis of what is actually taking place because then trade-show organizers can measure the results of their own show against the aggregated data of other events operating within its same business sector. Nonprofit association executives should also routinely compare the results of their show to other events within their sector and share those results with the board of directors. If the event compares favorably with others in that sector, then the credibility and value of that association and its staff are enhanced. If, however, the event appears to be lagging behind similar events, that information should prompt a discussion of how to correct deficiencies. It may be that the board of directors is not allocating enough financial or human resources. In either case, the CEIR Index data is very useful.

A Summary of 2015. Since its recovery from the Great Recession, beginning in 2012, the exhibition industry has made steady progress and has grown in 2015 by a remarkable 3.7 percent, almost twice the pace of the U.S. gross domestic product reported during the same quarter. Moreover, the industry has experienced 22 consecutive quarters of overall growth.

That said, there are industry sectors that are struggling, including government, raw materials and education. It should come as no surprise that government and education are lagging given the impact of substantial federal and state cutbacks in funding, the restrictions imposed upon government employees for travel to trade shows and conferences, and reductions in education funding. Raw materials, a sector that includes energy sources like oil and gas, has been affected by the collapse of oil prices, which in turn has adversely affected events in this industry.

On the other hand, many industry sectors are enjoying robust gains including building, construction and home repair; machinery and finished business outputs; and consumer goods and retail trade. After a slow 2014, consumer goods and retail trade grew by 3.6 percent as the result of healthy sales in apparel, hardware, gifts, lighting and jewelry.

Looking ahead, it is essential to remember that the exhibition industry closely reflects both the state of the macro economy, including such global events and trends such as the slowing of the Chinese economy, as well as the micro economies of each of the different business sectors. Nevertheless, assuming the U.S. economy continues to expand—even if just at its present lackluster pace—one can expect generally good news for the exhibition industry, which is why the CEIR Index forecasts a continuing expansion through 2018.

It is important to understand that this summary of the trade-show industry and the discussion of the CEIR Index is just that—a summary. For more details, and to understand how your own trade show and industry compare, secure a copy of the CEIR 2016 Index Report, available on ceir.org. Its valuable data will offer insight into how to best plan for the future growth of your own event.