Today's rough-and-tumble trade show world suits David Larkin just fine. After all, the founder of the New York City-based trade show directory site TSNN (www.tsnn.com) gets his kicks doing stuff like making a first-descent kayak trip down a remote river in Tibet.

Having grown up in the trade show business — his first after-school job was helping his dad with the the family exposition business, the Larkin Group — Larkin says the industry “used to be a lot cozier. There were fewer venues and fewer opportunities for competition. Now that new venues have proliferated and trade show companies have begun buying and selling each other, competition is brutal.”

While associations have been somewhat insulated in the past, “now the for-profit guys are looking at associations and thinking, ‘Boy, there's an easy mark,’” says Larkin. “Every association show is in someone's crosshairs. These companies are desperate to start new shows — even in today's economy — and the pressure isn't going to slacken.”

But Larkin is not pessimistic about the business, especially since the technology is there to bring about some changes. “The Internet is the biggest adventure for my generation,” says the 42-year-old dot-com wiz, who in founding TSNN discovered a way to meld his lifelong experience at The Larkin Group with his belief that the Internet will be integral to the future of expositions.

The Power of the Internet

“Of all the things on the horizon for our industry, the Internet has the greatest potential for transformational change. People who relax now, saying ‘I'm relieved that Internet thing was a fad.’ They're the ones who are going to get bit in the butt.”

Associations fear that if they put their shows on the Internet, they'll lose attendees, but the Internet isn't some subversive medium waiting to steal away your attendees, he says.

“Associations don't see their publications as stealing from their trade show; they see them as reinforcing it. The Internet is just another leg in the triad.”

Or is it? While the Internet is “certainly going to become an incredibly important promotion tool, as well as a tremendous cost-saver for the industry,” Larkin also thinks that someday it may become a whole lot more.

“As much as we in the trade show industry are saying that nothing can replace the value of face-to-face communication, the fact is that nothing has — yet. There are lots of great minds hammering away at developing an application that really is as good as going to a show. The reality is that everybody would appreciate never having to travel to a trade show again if there really was a technical substitute that worked for exhibitors and attendees. It may not happen this year, or in the next 10 years, but someday it'll happen. I'd rather be on the side of the future.”

Going with the Flow

As for his past, Larkin's quirky career path began when he took off for Hollywood with his newly minted diploma in film and drama. He worked, for the princely sum of $25 a day, as a production manager/assistant director on late-night cable movies.

“My first movie was C.H.U.D.,” he grins. “for Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers. I worked on some terrible projects, and a lot of great ones.”

While he was producing movies, the family business was expanding into the largest trade show producer in the U.S. for women's and children's fashion. When The Larkin Group opened an office in Los Angeles, David was asked to help out for three months. “It turned into 15 years,” he says. Larkin loved the experience, but sensed a change coming during a board meeting — a dinner out with his father, brothers, and cousins — and he decided to start his own company in 1996. The Larkin Group was sold to Advanstar in 1999.

Larkin began his company as a software development firm that built trade show Web sites. Then lots of other companies started building home pages, and most of them were better funded. “We started this directory business because we'd rather be friends than compete with everybody. Now our former competitors are potential customers.”

He believes that TSNN is in a great position for the future. “Every time the U.S. Postal Service raises rates, TSNN becomes more compelling for show producers. We generate tens of thousands of leads every month in trade show attendees and producers, and most of the information is entered by other people. We just created a place for people to leave information others might be interested in.” The company also produces newsletters on related Internet technology.

TSNN was insulated from the dot-com shakeout in part because, Larkin says, he was “spectacularly unsuccessful in getting investors. We didn't have much money, so we had to be careful how we spent it, and we had to work hard on our business model.”

London-based Tarsus Group PLC bought the firm last year: TSNN now has offices in the U.K., with launches planned for Paris and Australia.

Larkin's attitude toward work and life echoes in his extracurricular activities: kayaking, mountain biking, and his new favorite sport, snowboarding. “It's transformational,” he says of “shredding” down the back bowls at Vail. “You can push yourself and do all kinds of crazy things, but at the same time you get into this Zen rhythm and it becomes meditative in a way.”

He can't see himself ever wanting to retire from the exposition business, but should that day come, Larkin has a backup plan. “I never got to be a snow bum when I was a kid, so maybe I'll do that — as long as my knees hold out.”