The Center for Exhibition Industry Research's first-ever census puts the number of annual exhibits held in the U.S. far above any previous estimates.

Even before they "slice and dice" the numbers, says Douglas L. Ducate, president and CEO of the Center for Exhibition Industry Research, preliminary results are off the charts in the first-ever census of the exhibition industry.

Ducate and Linda McKinney, 2000 CEIR chairwoman, discussed some early findings at the International Association for Exhibition Management's annual meeting in San Diego in November, admitting that CEIR's initial estimate of how many events take place in the U.S. and Canada was an understatement. More than 12,000 exhibitions are held annually, triple any previously reported figures. And survey responses are still coming in, Ducate notes.

Why is this census so important to the industry? First, says Ducate, it's never been done before. The numbers he's talking about were always a best guess, and as pressure grows on budgets and the bottom line, estimates and projections simply won't cut it, especially for event organizers under increasing pressure to show value for their event. Another application of the data: Cities and facilities can look at stats for events and shows held in their city, compare it to attendance and space sales in other cities, and get a competitive edge and leverage in contract negotiations.

Ducate offers another specific example: "Say you're an association trade show manager who puts on a 35,000-square-foot show, and you're proposing a space rate increase to your board. The event manager can mine our data, and make a rate proposal increase based on empirical evidence."

CEIR will make the census data available in two ways. A publication, set to come out sometime this spring, will provide an analysis and breakdown of the numbers by city, industry, size of event, etc. Second, an online database service, also due out sometime this spring, will reside on the CEIR Web site (www.ceir.org), and will allow visitors to make broad searches. An important caveat: Ducate says that one crucial aspect of the CEIR census is its confidential nature. "Someone doing an online search can't drill down deep enough to find out anything about a single event," he says. "The query system will reject any search criteria that is too specific." For instance, if someone were to search for "the buyer attendance for an event in Chicago during the first week of November," Ducate says the system will reject that question.

Why Now? A body of data like the CEIR census couldn't come at a better time for the events and trade show industry. As an industry trend-watcher, Ducate says there are several key areas of concern emerging - among them industry consolidation, and declining or flat attendance. Knowing the numbers - and monitoring shifts - will be increasingly important, says Ducate.

Other trends in Ducate's crystal ball: - Space expansion is outpacing growth in the number of shows.

- It's a buyer's market for exhibit space, which means that the buyer's market for hotels may not be far behind.

- Exhibits are becoming more valuable to decision-makers - 53 percent of CEOs will attend up to five shows in 2001. Show organizers need to develop more VIP programs, says Ducate. "CEOs are at your show, and that can attract others. That will put your show in a different league."

- The threat of new technology can become a weapon when you give your exhibitors a Web site.