Moments before President George W. Bush's March 17 ultimatum speech to Iraq, the show organizers of NAB2003, the National Association of Broadcasters' annual trade show, gathered to discuss the coming war and what it might mean for NAB's attendees and exhibitors. How would the international community react?

They didn't have to wait long for an answer. The show, which took place April 5 through 10 in Las Vegas, saw a drop in attendance of more than 20 percent, from 117,000 in 2002 to 89,000 in 2003. “We felt an impact,” said Stacy Perrus, a NAB2003 spokeswoman. “If it hadn't been for the war, we feel we'd be at expected levels.” Interestingly, she notes that international attendance did not drop off disproportionally, remaining at the expected 20 percent of total attendees.

Many trade show experts view the war with Iraq as another bump in a long road filled with potholes, with the biggest concerns around the market's reaction to the current situation, or any other crisis. “Already, companies are looking at budgets on a quarterly basis rather than annually,” says Michael Bandy, president, Trade Show Exhibitors Association, Chicago. With a shaky stock market dipping and turning with any new information, a Wall Street stressed for months will have more of an effect on a company's ability to exhibit or send people to a trade show.

It was the economy, not concerns about Iraq specifically that Debbie Holton, show manager for the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, believes was responsible for low turnout at WESTEC 2003, North America's largest annual metalworking and manufacturing exposition, which took place March 24 to 27 in Los Angeles. Attendance was down by 7 percent.

International exhibitors and attendees are the losers in these uncertain times. “It may be difficult for international participants, like speakers, to travel to the U.S.,” says Peter Eelman, vice president of the Association for Manufacturing Technology in McLean, Va. “U.S. travelers may be reluctant to go overseas. And there are far more travel restrictions — it's already more difficult to get visas — that may make some international companies or attendees decide to sit out a show rather than go through the hassle.”