by Tom Isler | November 01, 2006

Stephen Schuldenfrei


At McCormick Place in Chicago,
Stephen Schuldenfrei, president of the
Trade Show Exhibitors Association,
monitors how the industry copes with
tight budgets and new technology.

Trade shows are back. Last year, for the first time, all of the core metrics for the industry -- net square footage, numbers of exhibitors and attendees, and revenue -- emerged from their post-9/11 tailspin to exceed marks set in the year 2000, according to the 2006 CEIR Index, the census conducted by the Dallas-based Center for Exhibition Industry Research, which catalogs approximately 10,000 exhibitions. Between 2004 and 2005, trade show revenue jumped to $10.3 billion, a 9.1 percent increase, and net square feet of exhibit space rose 8.5 percent, to 500 million. American Business Media, the New York City-based association of business media companies and a CEIR partner, reported that trade show revenue edged higher during the first quarter of 2006, up 1.4 percent compared with 2005 numbers. A New York City-based private equity investor, Veronis Suhler Stevenson, released a report this summer that predicts trade show spending will grow at an annually compounded rate of 5.8 percent through 2010.

Across the country, the future for trade shows looks bright. Las Vegas is going gangbusters. Tom Ackert, executive director of the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, reports an atmosphere of “bullish optimism.” Convention center officials in Chicago and San Francisco expect 2006 to be among the best years for their trade show business. The Massachusetts Convention Center Authority in Boston booked a record number of future conventions last year.

“Overall, as a whole, the forecast is good,” says John Stuttard, vice president of international brand development, Interphex brands, for U.K.-based Reed Exhibitions.

But the reality is that not everyone is thriving, and growth is to be expected following a period of steep decline. Today, the dynamics of the industry are being altered by communications technology, aggressive expansion of exhibition facilities, and increased competition for buyers’ and sellers’ time and money. While the overall industry continues to grow, trade show organizers still are grappling with how to cut through the cluttered airwaves and fiber-optic cables to reach BlackBerry-wielding attendees and prove to exhibitors that a show-floor booth is worth their investment.

Yes, trade shows are back. But exactly what purpose do trade shows serve in the current business environment? And how will these events, which insiders consider the last bastion of face-to-face interaction, keep up with the high-tech times? Experts dispute which trends are most salient but agree that the industry is reinventing itself under their watchful eyes.

The move to add value

Marc Rosenstock“For me, the challenges are the same. The degree of difficulty is what’s changing,” says Marc Rosenstock, left, president and CEO of ROC Exhibitions, a Lisle, Ill.-based trade show management company.

The traditional task of attracting the right number and type of attendees and exhibitors is more daunting than it used to be, some trade show organizers contend, especially because companies are more disciplined about how they spend marketing dollars, and because travel and accommodation costs in major trade show markets have increased. Gone are the days when a company exhibited at, or sent its employees to, a show “just because it was happening,” says David Korse, below, who was set to resign as president and CEO of IDG World Expo, the Framingham, Mass.-based producer of technology-focused trade shows, on Nov. 3. Instead, Korse says, “Exhibitors are paying much more attention to the ROI [return on investment] of their time, resources and money.”

David KorseIn the vast trade show industry, executives are hesitant to call anything an industrywide trend, but if such a thing exists, it’s organizers working harder to add value to trade shows away from the show floor and education breakouts.

According to Jack Withiam Jr., executive vice president and general counsel for White Plains, N.Y.-based George Little Management, a major challenge facing organizers is “how to extend the life of a show beyond the three, four or five days of the event,” so that the show begins to function as a “portal” for business conducted throughout the year.

Networking and matchmaking software set up for trade show attendees and exhibitors, including products such as BDMetrics or Leverage Software, now can bring buyers and sellers together long before and after the booths are set up and dismantled, says David Weil, senior director of convention and trade show services for Chicago-based SmithBucklin Corp. The goal is to make time spent on the trade show floor more efficient and turn the show into a catalyst for business that can continue to return value over a long period of time.

Feedback surveys indicate the increasing value of networking opportunities separate from the show floor and education sessions, Weil adds, which prompted SmithBucklin to carve out more networking niches at exhibition facilities with food and beverage options and comfortable furniture, creating what Weil calls “that Starbucks feeling.”

Howard Britt, president of Winter Springs, Fla.-based Premiere Show Group, added VIP rooms for some of his largest exhibitors at Premiere Orlando, a trade show for the beauty industry, which was held in August. Here, exhibitors set up meetings with attendees to conduct business away from the bustle of the trade show. “They have a tendency to write as many orders in the VIP room as they do on the trade show floor,” Britt notes.