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Chicago’s down but not out

There was a sudden state of panic in the city of Chicago last month, when a couple of high profile tradeshows announced they would be moving to other cities. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth in the media. It seemed as if our industry was in the news every day, which is unusual for us because we’ve gone about our business without much fanfare for most of our history. Having the spotlight on us is a bad sign because the only time they acknowledge our contribution to the economy of Chicago is when there is some lurid catastrophe to announce.

To say the media’s perception of us is characterized by inaccurate information is to belabor the obvious. Nobody knows much about our business because we live in a cloistered environment where distorted information tends to get out quickly, repeated ad nauseam, and becomes the only thing people hear about the industry.

What our readers know – but others seem to miss – is the fact the whole industry is in a downturn, and there is a desperate scramble for what’s left of the pie. I’m not suggesting there isn’t cause for legitimate concern because we’ve all known there are significant issues in every city. For example, we’ve only recently discovered the importance of customer service and gouging the exhibitor has been standard operating procedure for as long as I’ve been in the industry, which is over 30 years.

The exhibitors and associations feel they finally have leverage to lower prices by playing one city off against the other. It’s a classic case of supply and demand, the shrinking economy has limited the total number of shows and there is a glut of facilities caused by the irresponsible overbuilding of the past decades.

Neophytes in our industry were blissfully unaware of the fact that our business is cyclical. If they entered the business at the trough of the last wave and only saw upward movement towards the crest, the inevitable market correction probably has them on suicide watch.
The question for those of us who’ve always known the peculiarities of this business is: what’s next? Obviously, Chicago has a solid foundation to be a major competitor in the industry for decades to come. I suppose I could name all of the advantages Chicago has but we all know them, so I’m not going to take up space and insult your intelligence by doing so.

Civic leaders need to embrace the challenge of the economic terrain of today. There is no sense in whining about how bad things are.

We’re all aware of it. Adjustment to price needs to be addressed and exhibitors are under unprecedented pressure from economic conditions. However, engaging in a price war isn’t the answer either. Associations are above all shrewd businessmen. They know this isn’t a charity and the profit motive makes people get things done when they would rather be out doing what they want.

The powers that be need to convene all relevant parties to look at all of the options with everything on the table – and I mean everything. Bashing the little people who do the dirty work is only going to result in more of the same. Political posturing for the cameras while planning for a return to business as usual once the heat dies down will culminate in a predictable death spiral.

There needs to be a sensible strategy to lead the industry out of panic and fear while using an innovative paradigm to confront existing conditions. An emotional knee jerk reaction to critical situations most often leads to massive blunders, which aren’t effective and very expensive to undo. Missed opportunities can come back to haunt you.

The objective is not to erase the gains made by all of us over the past few decades, but to preserve the vitality of an industry which is essential to the well being of the entire economy of our country and beyond.

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