It's the biggest exhibition in North America: With more than 135,000 delegates and 2,300 exhibitors in 1.9 million square feet of space at the Las Vegas Convention Center, the March 2002 CONEXPO-CON/AGG will seem more like a massive theme park for the construction industry. Nine construction and construction materials associations will hold annual meetings concurrently at nearby hotels during the five-day event, in addition to 300 industry meetings and 10 dozen educational sessions. A separate exhibition, the International Exposition for Power Transmission, called IFPE 2002, will share the five-day program.

Why mount such a potentially unwieldy event? Exhibitors like the concept because it allows them to concentrate marketing dollars on a big group and make a splash once every three years. Thanks to several rounds of consolidation in the construction and materials industries, buyers maneuvering the show aisles are likely to be eyeing more than a single product line. As vertical integration escalates, “the ability for companies to see every product line across the whole construction industry is tremendous,” explains Peter Vlahos, one of the show's managing directors.

“We want to make the show the gathering place for the construction and construction materials industries,” Vlahos says. “For the event to be successful, we have to get the people who make buying decisions. Combining association conventions and a trade show assures that the key buyers will be on the show floor.”

Douglas Ducate, president and CEO of the Center for Exhibition Industry Research in Chicago, expects to see more co-located meetings for two reasons: the cross-section of attendees they attract and their appeal to international audiences. “You always benefit from pulling the leaders of an industry together,” he says. “A big event like this allows delegates from overseas to accomplish multiple purposes in one trip.”

Is Everybody Happy?

With such massive numbers and multiple constituencies, CONEXPO-CON/AGG could be a manager's nightmare. So a major part of show management's job is to make sure that each constituency gets what it wants. (About 20 employees of the Silver Spring, Md.-based International Concrete and Aggregates Group and the Construction Industry Manufacturers Association, based in Milwaukee, split show management duties.)

The individual trade associations manage their own meetings and, with the help of trade show management, get their own members registered for the event. “Our philosophy is to allow associations to create a community on their own terms,” says Vlahos. Each group contracts with the hotel of its choice and conducts meetings for the association at that hotel. With nearly a dozen groups of 200 to 5,000 attendees, Las Vegas hotels jockey for the chance to be headquarters hotel for the concurrent conventions. So far, when the annual meetings have coincided with the huge trade show, they have been banner years for attendance at affiliated associations.

Members attending the exhibition generally register when they sign up to attend their association meeting; the association forwards names and contact information to a company handling registration for CONEXPO-CON/AGG; that company sends out badges with the association and trade show logos. “The associations never lose their identity and their brand,” Vlahos says. “That is a key factor.”

More than 60 percent of attendees at the last exhibition registered in advance, and Vlahos would like to see that number increase. Attendees who register in advance get half off the $60 it costs to register on site.

One of the challenges on site: having sufficient technology to accommodate all the cellphone traffic, “Now that cellphones are ubiquitous, exhibitors and attendees rely less on land lines,” Vlahos says. “It's a new problem for large event organizers.”

A Sea of Booths

The key challenge for exhibitors is to determine which groups of attendees represent the best prospects. Management helps by supplying exhibitors with a marketing kit and by helping steer attendees to the right sections of the show floor.

The show is subdivided into five major product areas. A technology pavilion and a separate area for the IFPE 2002 show are also designated. Registration materials, the show Web site, directories, and other collateral materials carry those designations as well to remind attendees of the distinctions. Carpeting on the show floor changes color from section to section.

“You always benefit from pulling the leaders of an industry together. A big event like this allows delegates from overseas to accomplish multiple purposes in one trip.”
Douglas Ducate

“You can't have a mishmash of products and services [on the show floor] and think you're going to succeed with a show of this magnitude,” Vlahos explains.

At the first show, getting exhibitors to take space near their competitors was difficult. But today the concept doesn't raise any eyebrows. “It simplifies the process and makes it easier to walk through, and you know where you'll find the product you're looking for,” Vlahos says.

CONEXPO-CON/AGG is so big that about half of the exhibit area is outdoors. “It's called the parking lot,” Vlahos says, a perfect place to demo cranes.

Even the best-engineered exhibition can be daunting to many attendees and leave some exhibitors feeling ignored. The show's Web site ( addresses both issues. A personal itinerary planner helps guide attendees through the show schedule, set up appointments with exhibitors, and map out a strategy in advance. The Web site also links visitors to the individual trade association sites and provides information on their conventions.

Exhibitors get a free online presence in the Web site's virtual trade show, which includes a product and service locator, with more interactive features costing more. “The virtual trade show extends the shelf life of the show, especially a show of our nature that isn't back every year,” says Vlahos.

Banish Egos

When co-location works, “there's nothing to compare it with,” Ducate says. But cooperation isn't always a smooth process. “The biggest challenge with associations is their agenda and egos — who's on first and who's on second,” Vlahos says. “But if you can set aside your agenda, you can do something that goes well beyond your industry.”

How Many Cookies?

Here are some stats from the last CONEXPO-CON/AGG, held in 1999:

Exhibit hall space: 40 acres, or 36 football fields

Aisle carpeting: more than 56 miles

Set up needs: two weeks, 10,000 people

Show directory: 418 pages

Number of hotels: 42

Total room nights: 145,335

Bottles of water: 100,000

Bottles of beer: 60,000

Gallons of coffee: 2,035

Big cookies: 84,000