“Industry associations do little strategically to promote the exhibition industry, which they ultimately need to survive.”

How important are exhibitions to associations? According to the recently released census from the Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR), associations accounted for two-thirds of the 13,185 exhibitions held in the U.S. and Canada last year. Exhibitions are not only a critical revenue source for many if not most associations, they are also a powerful and important part of a company's integrated marketing program. They gather an industry in one venue. They are direct, personal, and exciting. Exhibitions allow people use all their senses to evaluate a seller, and they become the basis for creating and maintaining relationships.

But the continued health of exhibitions is far from guaranteed. Exhibitions are considered a form of marketing, just like advertising, direct-mail, and Internet marketing. Marketing dollars are vulnerable to budget cuts when times get tough. It's always easier to cut those dollars than to raise revenue or reduce head count. Show dollars are especially vulnerable, as they involve staff travel, booth-related costs, and significant staff time.

Further, powerful industry groups help protect and promote other marketing media. The Direct Marketing Association has total revenues of over $24 million. The Magazine Publishers Association's budget is $10 million. Radio and television broadcasters, cable stations, newspapers, and other marketing media each have associations spending several million dollars annually to promote their media as an effective marketing tool.

CEIR is the only organization that provides research and promotion of exhibitions. Its total 2000 budget, including expenditures for its foundation, was $1.1 million. Some 7.5 percent of this funding came from association show producers; about the same percentage came from grants from related industry associations, such as the International Association for Exhibition Management and the Professional Convention Management Association.

Our industry associations are neglecting to invest in exhibitions. They do a great job expanding individual education and networking opportunities for their members, but they do little strategically to promote the exhibition industry, which they ultimately need to survive. The biggest association for associations, the American Society of Association Executives, appropriately protects associations through its work on public policy and the positioning of associations, but it does little to protect or promote exhibitions as a major funding source for associations.

It's time that associations and suppliers who rely on exhibition revenue refocus on the big picture and start thinking strategically. Convention centers, hotels, airlines, and associations for convention and exhibition organizers will lose a significant revenue if exhibitions do not maintain their share of the marketing dollar. Think about that.

Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, based in Arlington, Va. We welcome submissions for “Talk Back,” as well as for “Letters to the Editor.” Send them to rmcgee@Primediabusiness.com, or mail them to Editor, AM, 43L Nason Street, Maynard, MA 01754.