July 14, 2024 12:28 PM
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An Invisible Industry

(Photo: CEIR; EIC. Go Live Together, and Events Industry Council)

by Bob McGlincy, Willwork


Tradeshows and business events are a trillion-dollar industry! Its impact on everyday life is truly amazing:

  • It creates millions of jobs.
  • It generates billions in tax revenues.
  • It produces hundreds of billions in business sales.
  • It showcases new technologies and establishes brands.

Tradeshows and events are big business, no question about it. But most people are unaware of this industry’s size, extent, and impact—and that’s why it’s often referred to as “invisible.”

When exhibit industry professionals attend a family gathering, a party, or dinner, we are often asked, So, what do you do for a living?” When the reply is “Tradeshows,” the person asking usually responds with a puzzled look. “You know, like an auto show or a boat show.” “Oh yeah,” they say, “now I understand!” Only they don’t; not really. Consumer shows are the visible tip of the iceberg, but there is much, much more that most people do not see.

Private tradeshows are closed events. With these Business-to-Business shows, there is no public advertising, and most people have no idea that the event is taking place. Even B2B invited attendees might know only a few specific shows and not the totality of the industry—they might see some trees, but very few see the forest—and much of the public (including most legislators at all levels) are not even aware or unaware that the forest exists.

Tradeshows Mean Business

The convention and business events industry is a powerful economic engine: it drives millions of jobs, delivers billions of dollars in sales, and propels the global economy with over a trillion-dollar contribution to the GDP. A “trillion” is sometimes heard on the news in terms of government spending or in the valuation of a few, a very few, companies. But what does that number mean?

A “trillion” is a million times a million. To transport a trillion dollars (in one-hundred-dollar bills) would require 478 trailers (each one forty-eight feet long) full of double skids measuring at 48 inches x 40 inches x 40 inches. Once unloaded, the single skids would cover more than 130,000 square feet of exhibit space at a convention center—with no aisle space!

Prior to the pandemic, 1.7 million companies exhibited at US tradeshows, and 81.3 million people attended 11,400 events. Significantly, tradeshows generate $130 billion in US tax revenues, including $79 billion at the state and local level.

Business Sectors, Products, and Entrepreneurs

Tradeshows target diverse industries and impact every segment of the economy.  Business sectors include technology, healthcare, food, manufacturing, government, defense, construction, sporting goods, financial services, and more. There is a tradeshow wherever you look, whatever industry or niche you can think of.

Inventions displayed at tradeshows impact the way we live today. Some familiar products first revealed at or popularized at tradeshows include:

  • ATMs
  • Barbie Dolls
  • Cars
  • Computers
  • Dishwashers
  • DVRs
  • Electricity
  • Elevators
  • Fax Machines
  • Flush Toilets
  • Incubators
  • Medicines
  • Movies
  • Munitions
  • Nintendo
  • Nylons
  • Planes
  • Phones
  • Radios
  • Sewing Machines
  • Televisions
  • Typewriters
  • X-ray Machines
  • Zippers

Tradeshows are a great way to display an invention or product—first to individuals and then to the world. A great idea or a new technology is meaningless if no one knows about it … or if no one buys it. A partial list of inventors, entrepreneurs, and businesspeople who have benefited from promoting products at tradeshows includes:

Steve Jobs, Thomas Edison, Bill Gates, Alexander Graham Bell, Ruth Handler, Samuel Colt, Issac Singer, Henry John Heinz, Josephine Cochrane, Andy Grove, Alfred Krupp, Henry Steinway, Eliphalet Remington, Elisha Otis, and George Westinghouse.

Tradeshows work—they work very well. However, the impact and importance of this industry are mostly unknown outside the world of tradeshow professionals. If we want to be heard, we must speak up. If we want to be seen, we have to demonstrate our value.

This story originally appeared in the Q2 2024 issue of Exhibit City News, p. 16. For original layout, visit https://issuu.com/exhibitcitynews/docs/ecn_q1_2024.

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