When his contract expires on September 30, 2012, Steven Hacker will step down as president of the International Association of Exhibitions and Events, the Dallas-based organization he’s led for the past 21 years. The association, which has 8,500 members and includes 1,300 member companies, serves individuals who plan, manage, produce, and serve the exhibition industry. In his tenure, Hacker has become one of the most influential voices in the exhibition industry. We talked to Hacker about what’s next for the industry—and for him.

Q: How have societal and economic changes affected the exhibition industry in recent years?
The industry has matured significantly and with that come some new challenges. A broadened—more diverse, more international—audience requires more messaging to justify the return on investment of the exhibition experience. When you also layer on top of that the rapidity with which change is taking place to cultural issues, economic issues, society—all of these, in one way or another, impact exhibitions. When you take away all the bells and whistles, an exhibition is nothing more than a mirror of the industry, society, culture that it serves. They don’t exist apart from everything else, they are a reflection of everything else.

For businesses, the first casualty of this new century was predictability. For most of our adult lives, you could depend upon some relatively accurate forecasts. We are not likely to be able to use accurate predictors as we have in the past. The absence of predictability makes it much more difficult to anticipate not only what’s going to happen in your business, but what might happen elsewhere that will affect your business. Businesses have to understand how to do two things—read early indicators and trust their instincts to make decisions based on less-than-perfect information. You can’t stop taking risks. We are seeing a lot of that in the exhibition industry, where all kinds of sacred cows are being slaughtered. Not too long ago one of the sacred mantras was you never discounted exhibit space—your exhibitors will just cannibalize you. That’s no longer the case. Now a lot of shows are using the equivalent of yield management to price their space and that’s terrific.

Q: What does the exhibition of the future look like?
I hesitate to use the term because it might conjure up the wrong imagery, but I see the equivalent of a classy three-ring circus. It’s a place where you have not one focal point, a trade show floor, but a number of focal points where engagement is taking place between buyers and sellers, sellers and sellers, buyers and buyers, media and buyers—all of the combinations comingling in ways that heretofore have not been possible or acceptable. The result is extraordinarily rich learning content, experiences, and sales and it’s pretty exciting. It’s going to be a new age. Anybody who predicts the demise of the face-to-face exhibition does not have all of the facts. It’s quite the contrary. The desire for face-to-face engagement is getting stronger every day as a response to living in this high-stress, high-pressure, high-intensity, technology-driven age. It’s a richer experience and people fundamentally understand that—that’s why people keep going to the movie theater when they could sit at home in front of these gorgeous 3D plasma screens.

Q: What’s the latest with IAEE’s exhibition industry public relations campaign?
The campaign has become our most important strategic initiative because we recognize that the exhibition as a communications and marketing channel has achieved significant advantage over other forms. What better time to launch a long-term campaign to reinforce the unique value of face-to-face than when you’ve already achieved a very advantageous position.

That led to the realization that we could do a credible job with a PR campaign if we focused on the unique and compelling stories that come out of exhibitions. One of the first stories that’ll appear is about the Abilities Expo—an event designed for persons with disabilities. One of the compelling stories is about a family from Houston whose 11-year-old son is severely physically disabled. At the Abilities Expo, the family was put in touch with a manufacturer of custom wheelchairs who was able to design a wheelchair that is going to give that child hope for a better life. Without that exhibition they would have never been able to find that source—that’s the kind of story that’s going to be told over the next three years.

The stories will also be about business success. So many small businesses use exhibitions to launch their businesses. I had that experience two months ago, looking beyond the time when I leave here to launch my own photography business. I participated in a home and garden show as an exhibitor and had an extraordinary couple of days.

The most remarkable part so far is that we have raised over $1 million with the single largest permissible contribution being $5,000 a year. (The IAEE-led campaign has the support of several other exhibition industry organizations.)

Q. What will you do as chairman of the Convention Industry Council to raise the profile of meetings and exhibitions, particularly in light of the recent GSA debacle?
What’s emerged in the last three years is the need for the industry to have a coordinated system for messaging. The simple take by too many people is there ought to be one powerful voice. Well, that’s not going to happen, because the industry is so diverse. There are 33 organizations, so one voice is not the answer; one strategy is the answer and that’s what we are working to achieve. If something happens that is a potential PR threat, as it did recently with the GSA meeting, the ball was passed to the appropriate member organization—in this case the Society of Government Meeting Professionals. It issued an immediate statement that said this has nothing to do with meetings, this has to do with ethics violations by the government employees who were involved in this largesse. Coming from them, it had substantial impact on putting the media attention where it belonged—on the GSA employees who not only violated good judgment, but the responsibilities they pledged to undertake.

That is the demonstration of the wisdom of the direction in which CIC is going. That doesn’t obviate the potential that CIC will from time to time make macro announcements. You can’t predict, but you can be prepared, and that’s what we are doing—preparing a crisis management response mechanism.

Q: What do you think of hosted-buyer programs?
It depends on the demographics and it depends on the nature of the exhibitors, but there are many events in which the opportunity to schedule face-to-face, sit-down appointments with key buyers for a defined time might be beneficial. So it’s a good thing, but it may not be for everybody. It has to be selectively utilized to be effective.

Q: What’s next for you?
When I look back over the 21 years I’ve been here, I see an organization that has evolved in constructive ways and has been remarkably stable. I attribute that to the luck that I have enjoyed in securing a terrific staff that consistently outperform and always make me look a lot smarter than I really am. I thought I’d stay five or six years and get the organization stabilized—because when I came on board it was an oil rig on fire—but I realized what a great industry this organization serves. It eliminated that yearning association executives often have for something bigger and better. I’ve had 21 terrific years and my gut says that this is a good time to say adios. I know I’m going to stay involved in some capacity in the industry because it’s just too much fun.

And I already have my first photo assignment for October. I’m going to do a very creative photo shoot for an event demonstrating the unique nature of what happens at an event. I’m going to be getting in there and capturing the creativity that happens at events, at exhibitions, at the trade show booth. That for me is a passion. I’ll do a little bit of that, some association consulting, and if I can slip in a day or two of golf, that would be great.