“We had grown the show as much as we ever would,” says Jack Cergol, chief staff executive of the Alexandria, Va.-based National Spa and Pool Institute. The group's annual two-and-a-half-day meeting was attracting 600 to 700 exhibitors and 12,000 to 15,000 delegates with a 300,000-square-foot show floor. But its growth had stalled because it focused too narrowly on pools and hot tubs. NSPI management wanted to cast a wider net to attract attendees and exhibitors from related industries, such as landscapers, builders, and remodelers. Alone, the 5,300-member association didn't have the resources to expand its base of pool and spa manufacturers, distributors, retailers, service companies, and builders.
So last year, NSPI started shopping the show to potential buyers, focusing onproducers with the connections and databases to push the expo into the next stage of its evolution. NSPI looked at several companies before settling on Dallas-based Hanley-Wood, an exhibition and publishing company with a portfolio of properties, mostly in construction-related industries. Among Hanley-Wood's other shows: World of Concrete and Custom Home.
“The magnitude and power they brought to our industry — expanding it to the entire backyard and an entire cadre of other areas — was probably the biggest reason we went with Hanley-Wood,” Cergol explains.
In February, NSPI sold the rights to manage and stage the show, which was renamed the NSPI International Expo and Conference, in exchange for an undisclosed sum and a percentage of the revenue from future conferences. NSPI will continue to sponsor the show. Proceeds from the sale have been invested, and income from those investments will provide operating funds for the association.
Why would any association give up control of a signature event? Many groups that consider farming out their trade show responsibilities often do so because they choose to focus on their core functions. “If you look at the mission of most organizations, it doesn't say ‘running trade shows,’ but it does say “serving their members,’” Poss says. Education and some type of advocacy are usually high priorities. Granted, running an exhibition has several obvious advantages, such as providing a hefty chunk of an association's operating funds and facilitating commerce within an industry. But turning matters over to a third party can accomplish the same goals.
In the case of Hanley-Wood, which produces nine exhibitions, those goals can be accomplished more efficiently as well. Economies of scale come into play when dealing with printing, mailing, and other suppliers. McConnell says more registration will be moved online, and exhibitors will be able to set up electronic booths on the show's Web site to offer attendees a preview. And some of the exhibition group's staff are veterans of association meeting departments, so they certainly understand the demands of these kind of events.
In announcing the sale early this year, the association characterized it as a “long-term strategic partnership” with the new owner, and that's how the deal seems to be unfolding. In fact, NSPI has a 45-yearto sponsor the show. That's a deliberate strategy on Hanley-Wood's part, explains the company's president, Galen Poss.
Hanley-Wood applied a number of lessons it's learned about acquiring association trade shows. The first order of business is to establish what's important to the association, Poss says. Issues include the use of the group's name, the determination of educational content, and even seemingly minor details such as whether the president will have a suite reserved. Trust, sensitivity, and respect are essential — they allow an outsider “to take stewardship over something they have a financial and maybe emotional attachment to,” he notes.
Poss compares turning over management of a show to getting married. “If you're going to be working with someone for 45 years, you need to build a solid, trusting relationship,” he says. So, although Hanley-Wood takes over responsibilities forand operating the convention, NSPI's stamp on it will remain visible. The association retained the right to monitor the quality of the displays and overall appearance of the show, for example, and has the option of withdrawing its sponsorship if the quality declines. NSPI will retain a leadership hand in the expo, serving on the event's advisory board and designating each year's conference chairman.
Two advisory committees — one for attendees and another for exhibitors — will solicit feedback on the first show, scheduled for November 2001. And NSPI's various segment councils are working closely with the show management's staff on the educational program, coordinating speakers and topics for more than 100 workshops and seminars. “They'll give us input on trends, hot topics, things retailers and builders are looking for,” says Rick McConnell, the show director.
To ease the transition, Hanley-Wood also paid the salaries of the six-person International Pool & Spa Expo planning team for six months. The company tried to lure some of these veterans away from the association, but none were willing to relocate.
Relinquishing most of its responsibilities for a large annual event allows NSPI to focus on its other educational activities. In addition, if Hanley-Wood manages to expand the expo as anticipated, the income stream to the association will grow.
That potential for expansion promises perhaps the biggest plus for the NSPI's members, Cergol says. “The manufacturers will now be exposed to a different audience that has an affinity toward their products,” he says. “For years, we've been seeing the same people every year, which is fine. But this industry wants to mature and grow.”
That growth potential was one of the main attractions for Hanley-Wood. “We looked at the demographics and saw that the expo had great potential going forward,” Poss says. “If it wasn't growing, we wouldn't be interested in their show.”
The new managers are reluctant to predict how much the expo will expand. But armed with the World of Concrete attendee and exhibitor lists, as well as those of its other construction- and remodeling-related properties, the company expects to promote the pool and spa show to a universe three or four times larger than in the past.
McConnell says the existing show has done a great job of serving the association's members, but Hanley-Wood intends to look beyond that sphere to include pool installers and builders who aren't members as well as representatives of complementary industries such as casual furniture, fencing, and landscaping. To appeal to a broader population, this year's show will include a “burn area” to showcase grilling equipment as well as other specialty demonstrations.
“We don't feel that we acquire trade shows. We acquire market positions and partners,” Poss says. He says associations have tremendous marquee value in attracting exhibitors and delegates — clout that would be hard to duplicate by launching a competing show.
Hanley-Wood views exhibitions and trade shows as two legs of a three-legged stool it uses to reach business audiences. The third leg is a magazine, which explains why the company acquired Pool & Spa News shortly after buying the pool and spa expo — the magazine offers another forum for reaching potential attendees. And the association provides a conduit to the industry, Poss says. “They're connected to the industry in a way that we could never be.”