Innovation was the prevailing theme at the Exhibition and Convention Executives Forum on June 1 in Washington, D.C., as conference keynoters said new ideas will fuel the event industry, both now and in the future.

“We are an innovation industry,” said Gary Shapiro, president and chief executive officer, Consumer Electronics Association and author of The Comeback: How Innovation Will Restore the American Dream. Innovations are what grow the economy, and exhibitions play a central role as showcases for pioneering products and services, Shapiro told the audience of about 200 exhibition organizers. “It’s in our best interests to push our industries to innovate,” he said, because new products on the show floor will help drive attendance, exhibitions, and buzz. Shapiro has launched the Innovation Movement to lobby for entrepreneurs and their new ideas because, he believes, they are the key to reviving the global economy and creating new American jobs.

Shapiro also talked about the success of the Consumer Electronics Show, which drew a record-setting 150,000 attendees to Las Vegas in January. One key, of course, is that CES is a showcase for emerging technologies, which attracts a lot of attention. But also, he said, “every show has to be different.” Each year, CES staff tries to come up with three features that are new so people know it won’t be the same show every year. Often, it’s “one more thing” that sways someone to attend, “so we work hard to push that ‘one more thing,’” he said.

Closing keynoter Adam Hartung also spoke of the need for innovation. “Things are changing. Are you prepared for what’s next?” asked Hartung, author of Create Marketplace Disruption: How to Stay Ahead of the Competition. Hartung began his address by talking about two longtime rivals, Apple and Microsoft. Ten years ago, Apple was on the verge of bankruptcy and Microsoft was the biggest company in the world. Today, Apple is the second-most-profitable company in the world because of forward-thinking products like the iPod, iPhone, and iPad. Microsoft missed the boat on the market shifts and has fallen way behind. The message to the ECEF audience was: Don’t get too locked in to your way of doing things because markets shift, and when they do, you have to be ready to shift with them.

Hartung cited a survey of C-level executives in which 50 percent of the respondents said exhibitions are a key component of marketing, 27 percent said they weren’t, and 23 percent were neutral. That means 50 percent of executives are questioning the value of exhibitions, he said. Does that mean you continue to do what you’ve been doing or try some new ideas? he asked.

Hartung urged exhibition organizers to think about what exhibitions and conventions will look like 10 years from now, then work their way back. He recommends creating “white space teams”—people who get together to think about the future and come up with new ways forward. If you can’t afford a team, have just one person do it, he said. “Plan for the future, not for the past.”

He suggests watching trends, technologies, and what competitors are doing, especially the “fringe players.” Events like TED and SXSW, in particular, are doing some different things and growing rapidly. Exhibition organizers should pay more attention to what’s happening on the fringe of their market than to what customers are telling them, he said.

The results of an ECEF Pulse survey reported at the show revealed an industry moving forward. About 54 percent of the 206 event organizers surveyed said they had a profit increase from their largest event this year, while just 10 percent had a profit increase in 2010. Further, more organizers report an increase in the number of exhibiting companies, net square footage sold, and sponsorship sales in 2011 compared to last year. However, just 39 percent saw an attendance increase this year compared to 49 percent in 2010.

While attendance increases in 2011 did not keep pace with 2010, organizers spent more on attendee marketing this year. About 36 percent of organizers increased their attendee marketing budgets in 2011 compared to just 9 percent last year.

Finally, organizers say the biggest perceived threat to their event is marketing budgets being diverted to social media.