The days of relentless growth in trade show attendance are behind us, declared Douglas L. Ducate, president and CEO of the Center for Exhibition Industry Research, at the annual meeting of the International Association for Exhibition Management, December 1 to 3, in San Antonio. “These are the good old days,” he said.

Ducate was a co-presenter with Adam Schaffer, Tradeshow Week publisher, at a packed IAEM session in which they gave a sobering assessment of the future of the exhibition industry. Both men said that changes in the marketplace have eroded the industry's “unique selling proposition,” for a variety of reasons.

New product launches traditionally were the No. 1 reason for exhibiting, Ducate pointed out, but these days companies can't wait for show cycles to get their products on the market. Further, it used to be significantly less expensive to generate sales leads through trade shows versus cold calling, but as the costs of exhibiting continue escalating, the cost differential is nearly negligible, Ducate said, citing CEIR research.

While some expositions, such as those in healthcare and home construction, continue to enjoy robust growth, overall the industry needs to develop a new value proposition for exhibitors — one that incorporates both quantitative reasons for exhibiting and qualitative ones as well. Whatever that new value proposition turns out to be, the presenters pointed to changes that are likely over the next several years:

Show logistics must be streamlined and exhibiting costs need to be controlled, but even when this occurs, show organizers are not likely to see the profit margins they have in the past, noted Schaffer. “Your margins are going to be healthy, but you need to find new revenue streams,” he said. The cost-shifting model of the past, in which costs for things like registration areas ultimately ended up in inflated exhibitor fees, is not sustainable. Moreover, it is costing more money to attract the same number of attendees, another drain on show budgets.

  • Ducate expects the “verticalization” of shows to continue, as niche products seek niche marketing opportunities.

  • Both presenters said that the demand for education at shows will grow.

  • Corporate trade shows are a “significant” trend, but Ducate also noted that while surveys show that many companies view them favorably, most attendees prefer shows where they can see all the competition, not just one company.