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editorial





 
t was the best of shows; it was the worst of shows. It was the show of wisdom; it was the show of foolishness. It was the show of optimism; it was the show of shameful resignation.

In case you're not following my Dickensian hook, this is the story of two trade shows, both in Las Vegas, both serving industries with bleak economic forecasts, and both shouldering significant drops in attendance. But from this media attendee's point of view, these seemingly similar shows couldn't have been more opposite.

Heading into the 2009 International Consumer Electronics Show, I expected it to be something of a bellwether for the exhibition industry. Would the show floor resemble a graveyard of empty aisles? Would receding show attendance be offset by a comparable uptick in audience quality?

What I found at CES was tentatively promising. There's no getting around the fact that attendance was down - by an estimated 22 percent. There's also no overlooking the handful of empty booth spaces on the show floor - scattered about as glaring reminders of the economy's effect on the consumer-electronics industry. But along with that sobering reality was a noticeable optimism.

The exhibit managers I talked with seemed to fall into one of three categories: Some were optimistic that they would be able to maintain last year's lead counts; some were optimistic that they would only see slight decreases in lead generation and/or their return on investment; and others were optimistic that they would meet or exceed new objectives their companies had set to reflect the reality of falling attendance. In fact, a handful of exhibit managers discussed a proactive approach of recalibrating their programs' objectives, and then managing stakeholders' expectations.

The mood on the CES floor reflected that optimism. Staffers smiled and welcomed attendees into their exhibits, and if for no other reason than "the show must go on," it did. But I failed to realize just how remarkable CES was until I attended the International Builders' Show a week later.

Like CES, IBS reported a drop in attendance (roughly 33-percent). Unlike CES, that attendance drop was all over the faces of exhibitors. Staffers seemed resigned to failure. It was as if the majority of them walked into the exhibit hall on Jan. 20, and collectively sighed, "Well, this is going to suck." But rather than trying to make the most of the marketing opportunity - not to mention their companies' investments - they fiddled on Blackberries, talked on cell phones, took extended lunch breaks, and gossiped amongst themselves in an attempt to pass the time. What they did not do was interact with attendees.

I hate to kick a trade show while it's down, but the majority of exhibitors should be ashamed of their performance at that show. Not only was I appalled by their lack of effort, I was outraged at how their resignation will likely reflect on our industry as a whole. To echo Marc Goldberg, founder of Marketech Inc., trade shows aren't dead, but exhibitors like the ones I encountered at IBS are killing them with a mix of indifference, inadequacy, and inefficiency.

In an essay he wrote on the topic (which you can read in its entirety at www.ExhibitorWebLinks.com), Goldberg says trade shows may not be as healthy as they have been over the past several years, but they are still one of the only ways that marketers can get in front of prospects in a face-to-face arena. However, if exhibitors squander the marketing opportunities that shows provide, even the most well attended show will prove unsuccessful.

The moral of this tale of two trade shows is simple. You can fight to the death to defend your company's program and prove its worth, or you can roll over and play dead. If you choose the latter, don't blame your failure on the exhibition industry. It will survive this downturn. Will you?e

Travis Stanton, editor;
tstanton@exhibitormagazine.com

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