Times are flush for trade shows: From 1989 to 1997, expositions have shown a heady increase in square footage, attendance, and number of exhibitors, according to Tradeshow Week's 1997 Data Book. Moreover, trade shows are expected to grow at a compounded annual rate of 10.4 percent through the year 2000, says a report released in January by the New York City investment banking firm Veronis, Suhler & Associates, which specializes in tradeshow acquisitions and mergers.

But all may not be totally well with expositions. Specifically, many shows may be suffering from an "attendee density" problem, which can sneak up in the best of times, just like a high cholesterol reading after a couple of great meals. Skip Cox, president of Exhibit Surveys, Inc., based in Red Bank, N.J., has been conducting tradeshow surveys for more than a decade. He defines attendee or traffic density as "a formula for computing the average number of attendees or visitors who can occupy every 100 square feet of a trade show." Exhibit Surveys' research for the years 1989 to the first quarter of 1997, finds the average visitor density at expositions has been declining--not dramatically, says Cox, but enough to put the industry on the alert.

"Attendance is increasing overall, but exhibit space sales have increased at a much better rate," reports Cox. "Exhibitors are interested in quality, not quantity, of visitors, he says, "but when you can roll a bowling ball down an aisle, you can bet they are not happy."

Cox, along with Steven Sind, president and CEO of the Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR) in Bethesda, Md., and Francis Friedman, president of New York City tradeshow consulting firm Time and Place Strategies, Inc., have recently conducted seminars on attendance patterns at the annual meeting of the International Association for Exposition Management and the Professional Convention Management Association.

"I don't want to sound like an alarmist," says Sind. Some shows do better with a smaller audience, he notes, and overall the quality of audience at shows has been improving. But shows are growing at such a rate there is a "perception that the audience is may be going away," Sind says. "The question is, what can you do if things start heading downward?"

According to research by Exhibit Surveys, Inc., to achieve a high exhibitor satisfaction level, a 150,000-square-foot show, for example, optimally would draw 11,250 to 15,000 attendees (see chart below). He says that in general, the bigger the show the better, as far as attendee and show organizer satisfaction levels are concerned. Exhibitors, on the other hand, want to "see more bodies, to have a sense of synergism on the tradeshow floor," albeit they are still concerned about the quality of the audience.

"The point is to achieve a balance," Cox advises. In the long term, if show organizers are looking to continue to grow their shows, they have to grow their audience at a pace that keeps up with space sales."

Attendee Buying Patterns Much attention has been paid to cultivating exhibit sales, but it is perilous to overlook the importance of attendees. However, the universe of potential attendees/buyers for trade shows is a moving, changing target.

Associations do a good job of keeping up with industry issues and with technology, Cox explains, but not-for-profits, especially, have a hard time keeping up with the marketplace--the underlying buying trends that affect both their exhibitors and attendee base, he explains. "Most associations have very vertical audiences, but the research we have done on vertical shows indicates that unless you meet the needs of the various segments within that narrow audience, you may lose ground."

One example: There is a growing trend for some companies to send "buying teams" to trade shows, which may consist of a chief financial officer, marketing people, and engineers. Collectively, they make the buying decision. An association that was not aware of this trend could not effectively target the different information needs of each of these attendee segments.

No one in the tradeshow industry has brought so much focus on the impact of marketplace patterns on attendees and exhibitors as Friedman, who has warned for years about the potential for attendee and exhibitor participation to decline, given the rapid development of information technology that makes it easier for attendees to get product or service information from electronic media like videoconferencing, interactive CDs, and the Internet, rather than expositions. Corporate downsizing and the tightening of travel budgets have made exposition travel more problematic as well, he points out.

But in a series of tremendous years for the tradeshow industry, does he feel like a life insurance salesman making a pitch to a carefree 20-year-old in the bloom of youth?

"We are still "right-sizing" and downsizing in the best economy that has ever happened in the world," says Friedman, pointing to recent job cutbacks at companies like Boeing and Kodak during a time of high corporate profits and low inflation.

"What happens in two to three years when the economy takes a downturn? Is your show downproofed?" he asks. "We have already cut out the fat. The next cut will be into the bone."

His prescription for the rest of this decade and beyond: "The challenge is to build a product so compelling, one with such intrinsic value, that they [exhibitors and attendees] will have to be at your show. It's a new game, with new rules, new risks, and new opportunities."

Steven Sind is on the road a lot these days, and he has an EPIC message. The president and CEO of the Center for Exhibition Research (CEIR) is spearheading the Exhibition Industry Promotion Campaign, otherwise known as EPIC. "This is an industry-wide campaign to protect and increase the exhibition industry's share of the corporate marketing dollar," he says, both in terms of the dollars corporations spend to send attendees to shows and to participate as exhibitors.

Corporate marketing budgets are shrinking as a percentage of sales--from 8.9 percent in 1984 to 3.5 percent in 1994, according to the American Marketing Association. At the same time, other marketing media--such as the Web and direct marketing--are gaining ground, Sind explains. The industry needs a "unified voice" to promote the power of exhibitions, akin to the dairy industry's highly successful effort to promote milk (all those celebrities with white mustaches).

Don Freeman, of Dallas-based Freeman Decorating, and his wife kicked off the EPIC fundraising effort in May 1997 with a "challenge" donation of $500,000. So far EPIC has raised $1.1 million in a campaign to raise $2.4 million. The money will be used to fund public relations and advertising, direct marketing, and speaking campaigns, as well as a series of benchmark studies.

"Associations that generate revenue through trade shows have a big stake in the success of the campaign," Sind says.