The exhibition industry is rebounding in 2010 as a majority of event organizers say their shows are growing this year compared to last, according to the Exhibition and Convention Executive Forum’s annual ECEF Pulse survey, which tracks four major metrics—number of exhibitors, net square feet of exhibit space, attendance, and sponsorship sales.

In all four areas, more attendees reported growth compared to the previous year’s show than reported a decline:

  • Number of exhibitors: About 44 percent report growth; 27 percent report a decline.
  • Net square feet of exhibit space: Roughly 35 percent see an increase; 25 percent see a decline.
  • Attendance: 49 percent report growth; 16 percent report a decline.
  • Sponsorship sales: 49 percent see an increase, while 18 percent see a decline.
This is an inverse of the 2009 Pulse, when the majority of event organizers reported declines in all four metrics.

The ECEF Pulse survey also asked event organizers about their profits, and here gains were significantly more modest. Only 7 percent said their largest event in the past year generated increased profits and just 9 percent expect their next event to be profitable. Roughly 81 percent said their last event saw a decrease in profits while 66 percent expect a decrease in profits for their next event.

Jacobs Jenner & Kent, a Baltimore-based research and consulting firm, conducted the survey for ECEF, polling 221 event organizers—all of whom were current or past ECEF attendees. ECEF released the results on June 2 at the J.W. Marriott in Washington, D.C.

Challenges and Opportunities
The ECEF Pulse survey also asked respondents about the biggest perceived threat or challenge facing the exhibition industry in 2010. The issue that came out on top: getting international attendees and exhibitors to U.S. events. Other major concerns are mergers and acquisitions (reducing the attendee and exhibitor base), attendees spending less time at events, exhibitors having their own private events, exhibitors canceling sponsorships, and competing events.

The top two concerns reported on last year’s survey—the economic recession and exhibitors downsizing booths—were at the bottom of the list in 2010.

And where do respondents see the opportunities? One is using social media to save money on marketing costs. Another is co-locating events with other organizations. And while getting international attendees and exhibitors to U.S. events was listed as the No. 1 challenge, it was also listed among the opportunities. Other opportunities mentioned include: expanding the role of sponsors, creating buyer-seller connections, providing attendees with more diverse experiences than just exhibits and demos, creating unique sponsorship opportunities and customer experiences, and using mobile applications.

Co-location stands out as a growing trend among event organizers. Fifty-two percent of the survey respondents said they are very likely or somewhat likely to co-locate an event within the next three years, up from 38 percent who said the same thing last year. Also, 79 percent report they are looking to diversify their exhibitor revenue stream.

In addition to the Pulse survey, Wayne Jacobs, chief executive officer at Jacobs Jenner & Kent, did some on-site polling at ECEF using audience-response technology. Asked what they are doing to expand their events, 36 percent of attendees said they are partnering with U.S. organizations and 26 percent said they are partnering with offshore organizations. And here’s an interesting tidbit: 34 percent of ECEF attendees polled on site said they have changed the name of their show in recent years.

Finally, when asked when they expect to see a full recovery in their events, here are attendees’ predictions:

  • First half of 2011: 35 percent
  • Second half of 2011: 30 percent
  • 2012: 23 percent
  • 2013: 9 percent
  • Never: 2 percent