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The Brain Drain
After years of doing more with less, exhibit professionals' creativity has been sapped, and many shows have been reduced to glorified flea markets.
have a confession: I'm worried about the future of trade shows. No, I don't think they're going the way of the dinosaurs, but I'm concerned that exhausted and apathetic exhibit managers are slowly but surely contributing to the incremental dilution of the medium's value. Each year, I cover dozens of trade shows and events, from Chicago to Shanghai, and recently I've noticed a disturbing trend. It's as if after years of doing more with less, exhibit professionals' creativity has been sapped, and many trade shows have, at least in part, been reduced to glorified flea markets.

In our Internet-saturated environment, attendees are exponentially more sophisticated than in years past. Few buyers come to trade shows with plans of aimlessly wandering the aisles. Today, they're able to research your company, view photographs and videos of your products online, download spec sheets, and more. Sure, trade shows give them an opportunity to get hands-on with your wares, but that's only a unique value add if your products are not readily available via other avenues such as retail stores, showrooms, etc.

Bottom line, it's more important than ever to deliver unique experiences at trade shows. Because if all you're offering attendees is a regurgitation of what they can readily obtain on your website, your strategy is woefully insufficient and, in my opinion, insulting to clients and prospects who have invested an inordinate amount of time and money to attend the event.

What is contributing to this dumbing down of our industry? I suspect it all comes down to bandwidth. For a solid five years or more, exhibit managers have struggled to contain costs and keep their programs afloat with fewer employees and far greater scrutiny. As such, they've pulled previously outsourced elements in-house, and personally taken on sundry other tasks previously completed by other team members who didn't survive the layoffs. And contrary to popular belief, creative ideas aren't free. They take time and energy to conceive and cultivate, and those are the two things most exhibitors are lacking – even more than dollars and cents.

Once our energy reserves are depleted, creativity is next to impossible. We become myopic, and anything perceived as even marginally superfluous falls far outside our peripheral vision. Brainstorming exercises are laborious and futile attempts when we fail to allocate a portion of our energy to the task at hand, and that's when the aforementioned apathy sets in.

But there's a silver lining. Standing out from your competitors on the show floor has never been easier. The bar has been lowered, and while the creative ideas to help you hurdle over it don't grow on trees, they're not unattainable either. The costs related to creative capital are soft, but the potential rewards are anything but, assuming you count booth traffic, brand awareness, enhanced interactions, and key-message retention among your objectives.

So how do we stop the brain drain? Start allocating energy to thinking outside the boring-booth box. Resolve to try something different, something unique. It's easier said than done, I know. However, according to our 2014 Economic Outlook Survey, 28 percent of exhibit managers report that their trade show budgets have increased this year compared to last. Hopefully, instead of mindlessly investing in new booth uniforms, they'll consider outsourcing some of the tasks currently eating up their energy reserves, or coughing up the cash to cover exhibit-house markups on the more time-consuming aspects of their jobs. And maybe, just maybe, those lucky exhibitors can buy themselves some time to sit down, get creative, and inspire the remaining 72 percent.

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