“Never Let a Good Crisis Go to Waste” —Winston Churchill
By Larry Kulchawik
In 1605 William Shakespeare was surrounded by the plague. As a young boy he was afflicted and became immune. Years later the plague returned and he, like everyone else, took refuge in quarantine to avoid a spread. During three months time of hunkering down, he wrote Romeo & Juliet, King Leir, Macbeth, and Anthony & Cleopatra. A spurt of literary creativity unfolded as a result of this quarantine. Was this due to his creative hot streak? Or was this due to his point in time. I believe it was both. The world was ready for his new point of view. So what changes will we make in the tradeshow industry when we return to face-to-face marketing after COVID-19?
The tradeshow/event industry, had experienced several epiphanies that changed the direction of our industry over the years. McCormick Place burned to the ground during the 1967 January Housewares Show. It was then rebuilt in 1971 and went on to become the number one convention facility in the U.S. Its popularity for tradeshows influenced other major U.S. cities to build convention centers. Financial crashes in the ’80s and ’90s, and 9/11 in 2001, each upset our business as usual patterns and drove exhibit suppliers to create new and creative solutions to address the new world challenges.
In the ’70s, the perception of a convention was a party. Hanging out and partying with your peers and customers created a special attraction for networking. The exhibits were second to this attraction. The Housewares Show, the Hardware Show, the FMI show, the CES Show, the AORN were events you did not want to miss within your given industry in the 1970s.
For exhibit design companies during those years the focus was to sell exhibits. Sawdust ruled. If you were not building exhibits, you were not making a profit. Selling exhibit services (I&D, site services, lead management and marketing services) was a secondary source of revenue. This then changed.
The exhibit companies of the ’80s still believed in sawdust, but were beginning to believe in the value of face-to-face marketing for the exhibitor. What was the end goal of exhibitors? Budgets were tight, so showing results from their exhibiting investment was now a major focus. Fred Kitzing believed that the exhibit was not as important as the attraction. Architecture supported the attraction. This concept was copied by others to build a competitive advantage. The exhibit should provide a brand look, regardless how you built an exhibit, the major function was to communicate a value-added feature over their competitors at the show to showcase their unique products and services. Face-to-face contact continued to deliver the strongest way to communicate a marketing message, resulting in a decision to buy.
The success of tradeshow marketing expanded from east to west coasts and the concept of show contractors helped associations and private organizers to plan their events nationally. Many show organizers and associations wanted to alternate their show locations from year to year to create fresh incentives for attendees. The emotional attraction of a city location for their events played a strong role to increase attendance. So came multi-city shows for many industries. Freeman and GES were the two largest show contractors in the U.S.
In the early 1980s, Leo McDonald from GES, and Don Freeman from Freeman, met and arrived at a business agreement. Freeman would manage all shows on the east coast, and GES would manage all show on the west coast. When associations decided to change locations each year, Freeman and GES would work together as partners. Well this did not last long, since both wanted to be the senior partner. GES, owned by the Greyhound Corp., then bought out many of the other show contractor companies—Pirot, Andrews Bartlett, Brede and United to name few. Greyhound Exhibitgroup went on to purchase many of the top U.S. exhibit design companies to create the first network of exhibit design producers (18 companies) in the U.S.
GES and Freeman competed independently and created the American model for show organizers to use a show contractor to manage any North America tradeshow event. From all this an additional industry blossomed—I&D companies with national services. Today they have formed their own association and bargaining strength with their unique abilities offered to both exhibitors and exhibit supplier companies.
In the ’80s and ’90s the economy raised its ugly head several times. Marketing budgets were now under strong scrutiny. Exhibitors still believed in the value of face-to-face marketing, but really dug in their heels when it came to the costs of exhibiting. This forced the exhibit industry to change in three ways. Three things were driving costs:
- Material Handling (drayage) was based totally on the weight of exhibit properties. Increased drayage fees were a major cost component for the cost of exhibiting. Show contractors made adjustments to modify and control. Some larger shows like IMTS offered exhibitors a package price to include carpet and drayage; others followed.
- Smaller Hotel Events: Organizers and associations began to promote smaller shows held at hotel ballrooms. Many of these smaller shows were not replacements for the larger events, but in addition to them. Heavy exhibits were not the solution here. Hotel shows created a new revenue source for hotels, show contractors and associations.
- Exhibit Design & Fabrication: As a result of these major exhibitor concerns, changes cropped up for exhibit design and fabrication methods. New supplier types were created. These fabrication changes were also followed internationally.* Portable Exhibits,* Fabric exhibits and applications compatible with aluminum systems,* Graphic production technology and* LED lighting, overhead fabric signage, truss/lighting and AV applications
When the economy slapped exhibit suppliers in the face they dug down to create new ideas and solutions for survival. They changed the methods of the industry to appeal to exhibitors. Today, all exhibit design and fabrication companies have CNC and CAD applications to assist with design and production. Most all subcontract parts and materials (aluminum systems, light boxes, graphics, pre-finished surfaces, counters, lighting, flooring) and simply do assembly. Carpenter skills are not needed as much anymore. Many do not even crate the exhibits anymore, but skid wrap. Most all exhibit companies now offer rental solutions and marketing services as well.
From these near-crisis national events, the exhibit industry has always bounced back to create a new way of doing things. COVID-19 is an international crisis and will require some creative international solutions going forward. I am certain we will create unique solutions and services to meet client demands to keep face-to-face marketing a powerful marketing tool, but this time it will take a little longer. The tradeshow industry coal mine is knee deep in canaries but will surely uncover new ways to support the human need for face-to-face communication. Emotion matters! “To be or not to be, that is the question.”
Stay tuned for all the new strategies yet to be uncovered!
Larry Kulchawik is the head of Larry Kulchwawik Consulting and author of “Trade Shows from One Country to the Next.” For more info, visit www.larrykulchawik.com.
This story originally appeared in the May/June issue of Exhibit City News, p. 16. For original layout, visit https://issuu.com/exhibitcitynews/docs/ecn_may-june_2020