According to the ECEF Pulse Survey, released at the Exhibition and Convention Executives Forum, held June 11 in Washington, times are getting tougher for trade shows. Of the four metrics — number of exhibitors, attendance, net square footage sold, and sponsorships — most respondents expect declines. Specifically, 48 percent had seen a decline in the number of exhibitors compared to their previous year's show, while just 23 percent saw an increase. Also, 54 percent noted a drop in net square footage sold, while just 21 percent saw an increase in that metric. Further, 46 percent cited a decline in attendance, while 31 percent said they had seen an increase. Finally, 50 percent said there had been a drop in sponsorships sold, while 28 percent noted growth in sponsorships compared to last year.

It's no surprise then that 89 percent of respondents said the profitability of their largest show would decrease this year, while 11 percent said it would stay the same. No respondents indicated an increase in profitability of their largest event. For 2010, the results aren't much better, as 82 percent expect a decline in profitability, while 18 percent expect it to stay the same. In a separate audience-response survey conducted on site at ECEF in June, most show producers (54 percent) said they expect profitability to rebound in 2011.

The survey also reveals that 61 percent are investing in innovative strategies to attract senior-level attendees, while 39 percent are not. Among those strategies are segmented marketing, use of social media, direct calls asking people to attend, and redevelopment of conference programming. However, show producers are trying to do more with less, as 69 percent said they have decreased their marketing budget this year, while 31 percent are keeping it the same. No respondents said they were increasing marketing this year.

The concept of co-located events got a mixed response. Specifically, 45 percent said they are “very likely” to continue co-locating over the next three years, while 18 percent are “somewhat likely” to keep co-locating. In 2008, 40 percent responded that they were very likely to continue co-locating, while 30 percent said they were somewhat likely. As far as the likelihood of doing a new co-location in the next three years, 38 percent said they were either very or somewhat likely to do so. However, in the 2008 survey, 54 percent said they were either very or somewhat likely to co-locate in the next three years.

When asked what the greatest perceived threat to their events is, most said the global economic recession. Other threats cited were exhibitors downsizing booths, exhibitors downsizing sponsorships, exhibitors canceling booths, perceived reduced value of exhibitions by attendees, perceived reduced value of face-to-face marketing by exhibitors, and exhibitors canceling sponsorships. What are the least of their concerns? Health threats (like swine flu) and future terrorist attacks.

In the on-site poll at ECEF, show producers in attendance were asked how they are helping out exhibitors in the recession. Here are the results: 22 percent said they credit canceled booth payments to next year's show; 21 percent said they allow exhibitors that downsized to keep their prime location; 8 percent said they waive downsizing penalties; 5 percent said they give additional space to anchor exhibitors; 1 percent said they waive cancellation penalties; 18 percent said “all of the above;” and 24 percent said “none of the above.”

The survey, conducted for ECEF by Jacobs Jenner & Kent Marketing and Research Consulting, Baltimore, polled 84 event producers. About 68 percent of them are association event producers, while 32 percent are independent event producers.

Strategic Reading

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of respondents saw a decline in number of exhibitors from 2008 to 2009

Source: ECEF Pulse Survey

of respondents saw an increase in number of exhibitors from 2008 to 2009

Source: ECEF Pulse Survey

For more on the economy’s effect on meetings—and what some are doing about it-- see our special report