by By Tom Isler | March 01, 2009

Doug DucateThe Center for Exhibition Industry Research released a study on Jan. 22 that says recessions do not have predictable or significant negative effects on the exhibition industry.

"The role of exhibitions bringing products to market doesn't change in a stressful economic environment," says Doug Ducate, president and CEO of CEIR.

Using data going back to the late 1960s, The Effect of Economic Recessions on Exhibitions shows that key buyers continue to attend trade shows during recessions, despite any overall attendance drops or shrinking exhibit floors at shows.

The study also points out that interest in trade shows, traffic density, hours spent at exhibits and the percentage of attendees planning to buy products as a result of the exhibitions do not change significantly as a result of recessionary economies.

The data collected for the report, however, does reveal some potentially troubling, long-term statistical trends, such as steady declines in traffic density; the percentage of first-time attendees; percentage of attendees who plan to buy products as a result of exhibitions, and the percentage of attendees who recommend the purchase of (or have the final say in purchasing) products from exhibits.

Most "worrisome," according to Ducate, is the decline in first-time attendees, down to around 34 percent in 2007, vs. a high of 42 percent in 1992. "If you don't fill the pipeline, you have a dying industry," he says, noting that CEIR's current research project, a study of the generation gap at exhibitions, will shed more light on the subject.
Other long-term trends don't concern Ducate as much.

The percentage of attendees who plan to buy products as a result of the trade shows also has been falling off since the mid-1990s, hovering between 52 and 55 percent since 2001, down from a high of at least 63 percent every year from 1992 to 1996. Ducate says that metric is hard to measure, because attendees are coming to shows more prepared and more knowledgeable than in the past, and some purchases might not be captured in that data, if they took longer to complete than the timeframe used for data collection.

Similarly, the percentage of attendees who recommend the purchase of, or have the final say in purchasing, products from exhibits has been trending downward since the mid-1990s, down to 82 percent in 2007 from a high of 88 percent in 1994. Ducate believes the consolidation of purchasing power in a smaller number of buyers is largely responsible for that change. But Ducate says he's looking for that consolidation trend to reverse somewhat as a result of this recession, when some companies realize they've been too beholden to too few buyers.

Finally, traffic density at trade shows is near 40-year lows, down 40 percent in 2007 from highs reached in the 1970s and early 1980s -- although because density numbers decline as exhibit floors grow, this demonstrates a certain strength in the exhibit industry. Exhibit space outpacing attendance is a problem for the industry, Ducate acknowledges, because it tends to yield the impression that attendance is declining and, "in our industry, perception is reality."

The notable exception to these downward trends is the meteoric rise in the "audience interest factor," defined as "the percentage of attendees who stop, talk or acquire literature at exhibits," which has spiked to 80 percent in 2007 from approximately 42 percent in 1999. Ducate attributes the rise to improved exhibit booths and interactive elements that have been added to the show floor in recent years.

The report is available at