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ccording to survey results recently published in The Washington Post, the deepening recession has eroded the financial standing and optimism of a broad swath of Americans.

The survey, conducted by the Post and ABC News, found that nearly two-thirds of Americans have been hurt by the downturn and that the country has slipped into long-term economic decline. In the exhibition industry, we've felt the impact of that economic uncertainty with shows such as the International Consumer Electronics Show and the International Builders' Show seeing attendance shrink anywhere from 20 to 30 percent.

It's not surprising, then, that many companies are cutting back when it comes to their trade show budgets - especially when you consider the fact that, in 2008, face-to-face marketing was expected to grow its share of companies' overall marketing budgets at a rate second only to online marketing. And the larger your share of the budget pie, the more of a target you become when that pie starts to shrink.

In fact, according to the results of EXHIBITOR's 2009 Budget and Trend Forecast, a whopping 41 percent of companies plan to decrease their overall trade show budgets in 2009. The upside is, of course, that 48 percent of respondents plan to maintain their 2008 budget levels, while a brave 11 percent are increasing their budgets for 2009 (presumably to cover increased costs or to take advantage of a marketplace in which competitors may have tightened their marketing purse strings).

But the unexpected silver lining came in response to one of the last questions on our survey: "How confident are you that your trade show program will achieve better results in 2009 than it did in 2008?" Defying the noticeable downturn in the economy, and the media-fueled doom and gloom, a staggering 70 percent of exhibit managers reported being "confident" or "extremely confident" that their programs will achieve better results this year than last year, despite budget cuts, despite attendance decreases, and despite rising costs.

According to their responses, the optimism comes from a heightened confidence in their abilities to execute their programs more efficiently and effectively than in the past. Seventy-one percent of optimistic respondents attributed their confidence to "improved execution of the trade show marketing program," while others attributed their confidence to enhanced lead-tracking capabilities, better booth staffing, a new or improved exhibit, effective budget cuts, and more.

Additionally, exhibit managers remain confident not only in their programs, but in the effectiveness of trade shows themselves. More than three-fourths of survey respondents reported "optimistic" or "hopeful" outlooks regarding the marketing medium, despite the fact that less than half of them have a similar sense of optimism or hopefulness about the economy.

It's nearly impossible to know if this confidence will prove to be well-founded, or if we will look back on 2009 and wonder how exhibit managers could have been so optimistic as the world appeared to be crashing down around them. But one thing we know about fear and pessimism is that, when it comes to the economy, it can often prove to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, as fear begets spending decreases, which beget economic recession.

Or, according to a paper on the subject published by the American Psychological Association, such fears can cause people to "take action to protect their assets, perhaps by tightening budgets, reducing spending, and selling stocks - but these measures can make the situation even worse, by further reducing consumer confidence levels and driving an increase in the rate of inflation."

In the context of face-to-face marketing, fear can beget a general exasperation that causes exhibit managers to give up, rather than fight to keep their programs lean, mean, and thriving - an attitude that sets an uninspiring tone for booth staffers, stakeholders, and show attendees alike.

If exhibit managers are able to maintain a level head, focus on doing more with less, and remain optimistic about their ability to maintain or improve their programs' results in the face of economic uncertainty, they're far more likely to survive unscathed. Face-to-face marketers who are less than optimistic need to proactively manage internal stakeholders' expectations and look for ways to increase program efficiency without throwing in the towel. After all, this too shall pass, but exhibit managers who jump ship now will drown before the tide goes out.

The following pages contain information from our 2009 Budget and Trend Forecast, along with a handful of participants' quotes in response to an open-ended question regarding the economy's impact on our industry. e


Travis Stanton, editor; tstanton@exhibitormagazine.com


IN THEIR OWN WORDS

The following quotes are a representative sampling of exhibit managers' responses to our open-ended question on how they feel about the economy and its impact on our industry.


"I'm not freaking out about anything - it's all cyclical. The tighter my budget is squeezed, the more resourceful and creative I become. So we, as an industry and as individuals, need to rise to the challenge."


"We simply cannot afford the high cost of drayage. It costs us more to move material to the show floor than it does to ship it across the country. We've opted out of shows that are in Chicago because of the service costs."


"In these down times, very qualified individuals attend trade shows. It's a good time to be exhibiting at trade shows."


"Our largest concern will be how the economy affects travel budgets for attendees. I have seen attendance fall in times like these, but the quality of the leads tends to notch up."


"We tested cutting back on marketing last year and saw a hugely negative effect. Marketing is still very important."

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