by Lisa Grimaldi | December 15, 2009

Steven HackerM&C spoke with Steven Hacker, CAE, president of the International Association of Exhibitions and Events, following the close of the organization’s annual meeting and exhibition, Expo!Expo! 2009, which was held Dec. 8-10 in Atlanta. The show attracted 1,836 registered attendees (approximately 55 percent exhibitors and 45 percent buyers, according to Hacker). He said the number was “better than we expected, given the hammering our members have had over last year.”
M&C: What are the biggest challenges facing the exhibition industry today?

Hacker: Exhibitions are nothing more than mirror images of industries they serve. When times are good, they thrive. For example, alternative energy is hot; it’s one of fastest-growing industries. By same token, the auto industry and home builders are having challenges.
M&C: What are biggest challenges IAEE is facing now and in the near future?
Hacker: We need to continue to demonstrate the value of face-to-face events; we’re not out of the woods yet. We need to push out the message and provide real-life examples of how exhibitions help businesses of all sizes grow.

M&C: During an address you gave at the show, you said “the industry has lost its innocence.” Can you expand on that?
Hacker: I spent first half of my career as CEO of an insurance association, a highly regulated industry. I learned early on the need to be politically aware and negotiate through state and federal agencies whose decisions could impact members. When I stepped in here, it was the was Wild West. The exhibition industry was ruled by entrepreneurial spirit, risk and reward. No one regulated it or knew about it. Now, we have run headlong to a situation where our industry is linked to the economy, and we have to demonstrate return on investment to bureaucrats, via advocacy, political action and grass-roots lobbying [through the U.S. Travel Association]. We need to inform members of the potential threat to our industry and continue to make the case for face-to-face events.

M&C: What is the outlook for the industry in 2010 and beyond?
Hacker: We expect 2010 will be year of steady but unremarkable recovery. You don’t recover overnight from something as ugly as we experienced over the past two years. We hear our industry is a leading indicator of the economy and our recovery trails behind it, but I am not convinced that’s true this time. For first time in history, business owners have instant access to high-quality attendance data and can adjust quickly based on that information. That’s something retail does not have right now.

M&C: What are your thoughts on labor/union pricing issues, such as those currently affecting the convention industry and facilities in San Jose and Chicago?
Hacker: Obviously, labor plays a significant role in the pricing chain of events. It is time for some labor unions to take note of changes that have taken place in the industry. And painful as it may be, they need to recognize reality, that we need to work together to recalibrate rates and rules.