by By Tom Isler | August 01, 2009

CS Handshake mainIn fall 2007, after two years of research and deliberation, the Dental Trade Alliance unveiled an unusual manifesto that called for a voluntary overhaul of dental exhibitions. An association of manufacturers and distributors of dental equipment and supplies based in Alexandria, Va., the DTA felt its members were being drained by an industry that produced 167 meetings with trade shows annually in the United States alone, or one show for every 1,200 practicing dentists.

"The Dental Trade Alliance has concluded that the current model for dental meetings and exhibitions in the United States is no longer efficient or effective," the position paper began. Trade shows were too expensive and too long, and attendance was slipping, the paper argued. Too many meetings were poorly organized and held in uninspiring locations, and organizers were not reaching out adequately to young professionals. The paper contended that only dental shows that attracted more than 5,000 dentists provided maximum return on investment for exhibitors and attendees. "Therefore, the trade strongly endorses a nationwide consolidation of dental meetings, so that each meeting meets the 5,000-dentist target." At the time, only about 10 dental events in the U.S. were that large.

Not wanting the paper to be empty rhetoric, the DTA delivered concrete proposals and initiatives for the industry to consider. The alliance detailed a list of attributes that contribute to worthy exhibitions, urging organizers to adjust their meetings accordingly (see "Anatomy of an Ideal Dental Meeting"). The DTA also promised to start rating industry trade shows, based on a combination of exhibitor surveys and empirical metrics such as attendance, drayage costs and amount of time dedicated exclusively to the exhibition without competition from educational programming -- a process begun this past January.

Recognizing that associations often use exhibitions to generate nondues revenue, the alliance also pledged financial assistance to groups that choose "to encourage the merger of smaller dental meetings into larger, regional meetings that better fit what today's dentist and dental company demands."

The DTA is unique in taking this aggressive stance for self-regulation, but it's hardly alone in thinking that must-attend megashows are the way of the future. Trade show organizers across all industries are coming to similar conclusions: To stay competitive in crowded marketplaces, they need to merge exhibitions or partner with organizations to produce joint meetings.

"I do think that in this economy, travel budgets have been tightened, limiting the number of conventions individuals can attend," says Jackie Williams, executive director of the Society for Nutrition Education, based in Indianapolis. The SNE collaborated with the Institute of Food Technologists in Chicago in 2007 to produce a single exhibition while each organization held its own meeting in the city.

A few notable examples of show consolidation include:

• The Professional Convention Management Association, which is poised to colocate annual conferences with the Association of Corporate Travel Executives as part of a strategic alliance announced in June (see Newsline);

• InfoComm and the National Systems Contractor Association, which merged their exhibitions last year to "save industry professionals time and money by offering everything they need under one big roof";

• The Newspaper Association of America, which this year replaced two of its conferences with a single event, mediaXchange; and

• Messe Frankfurt GmbH, which will colocate its new Texprocess exhibition with the well-established Techtextil beginning in 2011 to create "a textile powerhouse" where "manufacturers have the chance to make contact with twice the number of potential customers while visitors benefit from a much bigger and optimized range of products and services."

The concept of partnering to increase value isn't new, but John Graham, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based ASAE & The Center for Association Leadership, says show consolidation has picked up recently, along with outright mergers of associations. "Companies that belong to multiple associations are taking a hard look at dues expenditures," he notes. "When you have multiple players in the same space in a vertical industry, companies are saying, ‘We really can't afford the luxury of two associations.' "

That attitude is true of meeting attendance, too, Graham says, which along with everything else is forcing associations to reevaluate what they offer their members and how they run their organizations and their meetings. Graham doesn't agree that only the largest events will be viable going forward, but he does allow that if two trade shows serve largely "the same customer base with the same companies exhibiting at both shows, then yeah, I think the industries are better served with fewer shows."