I'm tempted to address the question of the exhibitions industry's current condition with a broad adjective like better, improving, or recovering. But while convenient, that kind of simple answer would be wrong. The truth is that the exhibitions industry is very broad-based and each event reflects the underlying condition of the industry or interests it serves.
Not very long ago, conventional wisdom said the exhibitions industry was “recession-proof.” That myth was dispelled by the recession of 2000-2002 and was again hammered home by the Great Recession of the past two years.
The 2010 CEIR Index (www.ceir.org) reveals that the exhibitions industry contracted in 2009 by an astounding 12.5 percent when taking all four of the metrics that we measure into account (exhibit space sold, revenue, number of exhibiting companies, and visitor attendance). It was by far the most destructive year — by a factor of four — since we began tracking the industry. The largest previous decline was only 3.5 percent in 2008.
Events in the government, public, and nonprofit sectors suffered the least decline as a group while, no surprise, those events serving the building, construction, and home repair industry plummeted the most. Not far behind were events in the automotive sector.
Once again, the experiences of 2008 and 2009 demonstrate that the exhibitions industry is a mirror image of the industries served by our events. There is a close correlation between the path of the Gross National Product and the trajectory of the exhibitions industry.
Looking ahead, we have very good reason to believe that the latter portion of 2010 and 2011 will be a period of dramatic recovery for many, if not most, events.
Despite the bloodshed of the last two years, there is ample evidence to suggest that the exhibitions industry, while dinged, remains viable and dynamic. Even in the darkest days of the Great Recession, many new events were launched successfully, and events serving emerging industries like wind energy and almost all things “green” did very well indeed.
Trends, many of them powered by new technologies, are now converging and promise some exciting things ahead for the exhibitions industry. Among the most promising is that virtual events — which have been feared for some time as threatening to replace the face-to-face experience — are taking an important supporting and supplemental role to live events. They are making the face-to-face experience even richer and more vital. Virtual events prepare attendees and exhibitors for the live event and also extend the life of the real event by many months. Thus virtual events are not a threat but a new and exciting set of opportunities for the exhibitions industry.
The convergence of Web-based and hand-held cellular technology is changing the experience as well. It is arming attendees and exhibitors with new management and communications opportunities. The days of the printed show directory are waning and GPS is beginning to guide visitors around the largest and most daunting exhibitions floors. Programs like Xnip now enable exhibitors to slice their show costs by allowing attendees to receive electronic collateral that they can retrieve from Web-based personal files.
is creating communities of interest that are arising around key exhibitions and events. Like virtual events, social media is giving new and powerful communications capabilities to attendees and exhibitors. In short, despite the setbacks of the last two years, the future is brighter and more exciting than ever for the exhibitions and events industry.