by By Hunter R. Slaton | November 01, 2009

Trade shows like InfoComm, Texworld USA and the NAB ShowLike so many other industries, the world of trade shows has been rocked by the ongoing economic morass. According to data collected by the Dallas-based Center for Exhibition Industry Research, the number of exhibiting companies at trade shows and conferences fell by 12.8 percent in the second quarter of 2009 vs. the same period in 2008. Shows that have been hit hardest are in industries most adversely affected by the recession, including construction and automobiles.

Yet some trade show experts already are pointing to eventual light at the end of the tunnel. "We've been analyzing the behavior of exhibitions through recessions since the end of World War II," notes Steven Hacker, CAE, president of the Dallas-based International Association of Exhibitions and Events, "and we know that when the economy rebounds, many exhibitors who dropped out will return."

Others are not so sanguine and see the need for a more fundamental change in the industry. "Unless we build our events richly enough, then we're in trouble," warned Rick McConnell, president of Irving, Texas-based Hanley Wood Exhibitions, during a panel discussion this past August at the Society of Independent Show Organizers Executive Conference in New York City. Many show managers are heeding that caution and taking proactive measures to build exhibitor loyalty.

Priced right
Something had to change for the National Association of Home Builders' annual International Builders' Show, which drew 1,200 exhibitors this past January in Las Vegas, down from 1,800 the year before. So the association developed a "stimulus plan" for 2010. The Washington, D.C.-based NAHB offered discounts of up to 14.5 percent off the price of booth space if exhibitors signed up by a certain time and maintained their footprint from last year. Those who reduced their footprint were still eligible to receive an 8 percent discount.

NAHB also liberalized its payment terms. "Exhibitors still have to be paid in full before they set up, but we have allowed them to spread out payments," says Mark Pursell, senior vice president of exhibitions, marketing and sales. "And we are seeing some benefit from that. We saw a big bump after the third quarter of 2009 for the 2010 show."

1109 HD ExpoSimilarly, San Antonio-based Hospitality Design Group is easing the payment rules for its 2010 HD Expo in Las Vegas. The show, held each May, had 904 exhibitors in 2009, down from 1,130 the year before. HD Expo previously required 50 percent of the payment for booth space up front, with the remainder due in January, according to Liz Sommerville, HDG's Atlanta-based show director. "Now we are breaking this up as a 25 percent down payment, another 25 percent due later on and the final 50 percent after that," she notes.

HDG also is delaying invoicing for its HD Boutique, to be held in Miami Beach, Sept. 13-14, 2010, until January, so exhibitors can count deposits as part of their 2010 budgets. In addition, booth space rates for HD Expo 2010 will be frozen at 2009 rates, an unprecedented move, according to Sommerville.

At Chicago-based Corcoran Expositions, a trade show management company that puts on roughly 40 shows annually for different industries, group show director Noreen Burke says her sales staff's mission is "to educate exhibitors about the industry and the show that we're selling, to convince them that it's in their best interest to stay in the show."

This approach has its limits, Burke acknowledges, but keeping exhibitors in the show is paramount, even if it's at a downsized presence. An exhibitor can downsize to a 20 by 10 or even a 10 by 10 booth, she notes, "but a 10 by 10 can't go any smaller."