A confluence of international events and economic trends conspired to cast TS2 — The Trade Show About Trade Shows — into a three-year downward spiral that shrank the show floor by 38 percent. As the number of exhibitors dropped from 322 in 2001 to 197 in 2003, attendance trickled off by 28 percent. After much soul searching, the Chicago-based Trade Show Exhibitors Association bucked national outsourcing trends and brought show management in-house, severing a five-year relationship with National Trade Productions, Alexandria, Va.

“It was nothing NTP did wrong,” says TSEA President Michael Bandy. “The absolute main driver was [that] we are the association, and we believe we need to have the contact with exhibitors — our customers — to build relationships.”

By removing the middleman, TSEA intends to reconnect with exhibitors and lure them back with more responsive service, customized marketing programs, and year-round exposure to prospective buyers. “We'll go out, listen to them, and see what they want to accomplish,” Bandy says.

The move did not come as a shock to NTP, which learned that its contract might not be renewed more than a year ago. In fact, NTP provided the year-over-year trend analysis that helped convince the board of directors this was the right direction for TSEA.

“It's sad to part ways, but there's no animosity or ill will,” says NTP President Tamara Christian. “It's like sending your kid to college. It's a necessary change — they have to take that next step, and you have to help them do it as best they can. And if one day they want to come back home, they're welcome.”

Beginning with the 2005 show, to be held July 11 to 14 in Washington, D.C., TSEA will sell its own exhibit space, promote attendance, and manage operations and logistics. To pull it off, the association is relying on the right combination of in-house talent and strategic partners to streamline operations, boost sales, and improve customer service.

The seed of the idea for bringing TS2 in-house was planted when Keith Ogulnick joined TSEA in April 2002 as education director. With 23 years of experience in association and for-profit show management, Ogulnick saw an opportunity for TSEA to take control of the show, which generates the lion's share of the association's revenue. But first, he would have to build a compelling case to present to the board.

Ogulnick began researching what it would take to transition TS2 in-house. He identified three key elements: a message that resonates with members, a crackerjack salesperson, and the right management tools. Of course, if in-house management didn't improve the bottom line — by decreasing costs and/or increasing sales — it wouldn't fly.

The message was the easy part. “For us to best serve our members, both regular and allied [suppliers], we needed to have a much greater role, much greater contact, to provide resources and service,” he says. “It's not a knock on NTP or any show management firm. NTP is one of the best, but they're still a third party. There's a disconnect between the association and the members.”

Without NTP managing sales, TSEA would need an experienced salesperson on staff. Ogulnick recruited Stuart Lawry from the Vernon Hills, Ill. — show management company Cornerstone Expositions, where he managed exhibit space sales and sponsorships. A diverse sales background on both the for-profit and association side would equip Lawry to serve in a consultative sales role, finding the best marketing solution for each exhibitor.

The next step was providing Lawry with the tools he would need to single-handedly manage the sales process. Based on colleagues' recommendations, Ogulnick chose to approach a2z Inc., Columbia, Md., about its event management software, a2zShow. With back-end tools to streamline the sales process and front-end tools that enable exhibitors to update their own data, the software promised to improve productivity by 50 to 80 percent (see sidebar).

The combined cost of hiring Lawry and licensing a2zShow was less than NTP's management fee. The numbers looked good, and Ogulnick packaged them in a white paper, which was presented to the board for approval in April 2004. After discussing some tough questions (“What makes you think you can do it?”), the board unanimously approved the proposal to manage TS2 in-house.

TSEA maintains that the final decision was not financially motivated. Stating that it's premature to project revenue at this time, they can't anticipate whether the bottom line will improve. Bandy says, “It's a wash,” when you compare the cost of outsourcing to that of in-house management.

The deciding factor was the strategic direction of TSEA itself. With more members doing double duty in exhibit management and event planning, TSEA is extending its reach beyond the traditional exhibit category to embrace suppliers on the event side.

“As an organization, we had to look at who we are,” Ogulnick says. “TS2 is the flagship of the organization. We have to take it in a new direction, and no one is better suited to do that than us.”

With the official transition to in-house management, Ogulnick has been promoted to vice president of education and events. In addition to leading the development of all TSEA and TSEA Foundation educational programming, he is now responsible for overall show management, including the show's operations and logistics.

Lawry joined TSEA in June 2004 as senior sales manager — the No. 1, and only, salesperson. Assuming responsibility for selling space, sponsorships, and advertising for both TSEA and its show, Lawry is under no small amount of pressure to generate revenue for the association. One advantage will be the ability to cross sell. When NTP sold the space and TSEA sold the sponsorships, there was little, if any, packaging of products to deliver more value for exhibitors.

With a2zShow automating a significant number of tasks, Lawry will also be able to provide more responsive service to exhibitors, who saw the software in action during the 2005 space assignment, held July 13 to 14, 2004, at the show in Chicago. “They see in real time, everything you need to know about the booth,” Lawry says. “That benefits me when I'm selling the space because, if I call a customer, I can take care of their needs with one phone call.”

Communicating the value of TS2 to both exhibitors and attendees will fall to Marketing and Communications Director Debra Jacobs, with the help of an outside creative team. Perhaps recognizing that a five-year history with NTP is a resource not to be wasted, TSEA retained NTP's Creative Solutions Group to provide branding and marketing support for collateral materials. The contract award was not a gimme — NTP submitted a competitive bid for what it saw as a serious piece of business.

“Our role will be to spend time with them, understand how they want the show messaged and branded, understand the change in direction for new attendee and exhibitor markets, and come up with the value proposition for those markets,” Christian says.

As the official contractor for TS2 (a three-year contract award that started with the 2004 show), The Freeman Cos. will play a role in keeping exhibitor costs down. “When we went through the bid process with TSEA, it was imperative to them that they pay their fair share,” says Carrie Freeman Parsons, vice president of marketing for The Freeman Cos., Dallas. “TSEA was adamant that they pay for the services they use from Freeman, and they didn't think it was fair for exhibitors to pay a higher rate to cover what TSEA wasn't paying.”

As a result, there is little cost shifting to exhibitors at TS2. The 2005 square-foot rate will be the same as in 2004, but 2005 exhibitors my find other costs somewhat lower. For example, Freeman saved double-time labor by going dark during this year's Sunday move-in day.

For attendees, the 2005 TS2 will feature more diverse educational sessions with less duplication, a change introduced in 2004 when 73 percent of the conference sessions were new. TSEA is counting on participants in its Preferred Partner Program to spread the news about its improved programming. For example, as TSEA's strategic partner and registration contractor, ExpoExchange can offer its clients the opportunity to invite their exhibitors to register for TS2 at discounted rates, as well as earn themselves a free registration.

If these initiatives yield the desired results, there will be a new look and feel to everything the association does. TSEA and TS2 will become so closely connected that they'll be perceived as one brand — a year-round resource for trade show exhibitors and the suppliers who cater to their needs.

“It's a rebirth of who we are,” Ogulnick says.

How long it takes to deliver remains to be seen. “Being realistic, we're not going to turn it around overnight,” says Lawry. “There are desires and reality. I'd like to see the bellwether exhibitors take notice that there is an association that has seen the error of its ways and wants to reforge these relationships.”

Cathy Chatfield-Taylor covers the exhibition industry as a freelance writer. Contact her at cathy@cc-tunlimited.com.

Talking About Outsourcing

By all accounts, outsourcing show management is alive and well in the industry. Every source contacted for this story acknowledged that associations outsource as a way to reduce overhead, but they said that anecdotal evidence indicated the numbers are just about evenly split between outsourcing and in-house management.

“I've heard that outsourcing has been picking up,” says TSEA President Michael Bandy. “But for us, for who we are and who we represent, it made sense to manage our own trade show.”

According to the American Society of Association Executives' 2002 Policies and Procedures in Association Management report, 92 percent of associations hold an annual meeting or convention; of those, 68 percent hold a trade show in conjunction with that meeting. If 52 percent of associations also have full-time staff devoted to meeting planning, as the report indicates, then it could be inferred that 48 percent outsource that function.

If that's the case, then TSEA is in line with current trends in show management.

Silent Partner: Tech Talk

If a2zShow could talk, it would tell you that it is perhaps the most important partner in the Trade Show Exhibitor Association's plan to take its flagship event in a new direction. Luckily, the software has Michael Hatch, senior vice president of marketing for a2z Inc., Columbia, Md., as a spokesperson. Without taking an apparent breath, he will tell you about the features and benefits of an automated event management system designed to save money, sell space and make life all-around easier. To wit:

Execution takes half the time

“Most clients see a 50 percent to 80 percent increase in productivity,” Hatch says.

Floor plans are real time

“While they're on the phone, salespeople can make changes to the floor plan on the fly in real time, the exhibitor refreshes the screen and can see it instantly,” he says. “Having seen that, you can get their commitment and kick out an invoice as e-mail.”

Booth sales go up

Because the administrative process takes less time, sales people can spend more time selling. Hatch says, “Most clients see 5 percent to 28 percent increase in booth sales the first year.”

Exhibitors update their own profiles

When exhibitors log in to the system, the data they enter gets formatted for a front-end Web page and a back-end exhibit guide builder. The 35- to 40-hour process of exhibit guide production? “It's now a matter of 5 to 10 minutes.”

Attendees plan their show strategy

Using the searchable online exhibitor guide, attendees select exhibitors to visit and print a customized floor plan with target booths highlighted. “It puts a tool in the hands of attendees to find the products they want to look at the most,” Hatch says.

These are just a few of the reasons TSEA chose a2zShow. But the picture is not all rosy. Without being asked, Hatch reveals that TSEA can expect just 10 percent to 15 percent of exhibitors and attendees to use the online tools the first year. Technology adoption takes time, but by year two, 20 percent to 30 percent will be onboard with it. And by year three, “a similar or greater jump.”

Meanwhile, TSEA's in-house staff will benefit from the time savings made possible by a silent partner that does everything from attendee appointment management to Web site traffic reporting.