(Note: Kate Harper, a designer in the gift industry read some of my thoughts on the long-term viability of trade shows that were scattered throughout a couple of issues of Creative Leisure News and asked me to write a piece for her blog. I did, and here it is.)
First, a little introduction: I’ve been reporting on the arts & crafts industry for 30+ years, served a total of 12 years on the boards of directors of three industry trade association that sponsored trade shows, and attended approximately 100 trade shows.
I recently returned from the Craft & Hobby Association’s winter show – the largest in the industry – convinced that trade shows as we know them today will not exist a decade from now. I’ve written about it in my newsletter, Creative Leisure News (www.clnonline.com) and Kate asked me to summarize my thoughts.
The craft industry is dominated by six major chains – Michaels, Jo-Ann, Hobby Lobby, Hancock Fabrics, A.C. Moore, and Wal-Mart. For many trade show exhibitors those chains comprise 80% of their sales.
1. Some vendors, whose new products have already been shown to, and approved, by at least one chain store, spend $50,000 or more on a show hoping the chain’s top execs will stop by.
2. A major vendor filmed his booth; at each major product line, an employee would show-demonstrate each new product. The video was then posted on the web for any retailer who couldn’t attend the trade show.
3. One vendor flies individual chain buyers to its home office.
4. There are trade shows in which vendors pay $15,000, set up in a hotel room, and then are guaranteed they will have at least a 20-minute visit from each major buyer. Part of that exhibit fee pays for the buyers’ hotel and plane bills.
5. Some vendors admitted they exhibit at a show primarily because their competitors exhibit.
6. Others exhibit because they are afraid rumors will fly if they don’t exhibit.
But what about independents? Do they need trade shows to see new products?
1. I talked to an independent retailer who spent almost all of her show time in seminars and workshops. Didn’t she want to see the new products? “My sales reps back home will show them to me.”
2. Seminars on improving your business are an invaluable element to trade shows, but consider this: Last year I moderated a webinar for 100 bead/jewelry retailers. The audience heard the speakers via their telephones or computers and saw the speakers’ power-point presentations on their computers. If they had a question, they would type it and it would appear in real time on my computer; then I’d ask the question. It was a great seminar, and no one had to travel.
3. So many exhibitors use websites, blogs, Facebook, and Twitter to reveal their new products before a trade show that retailers can see hundreds (thousands?) of new lines without attending a show. It’s reached a point now where often Internet-savvy consumers know about a new product before a retailer does.
4. For many independents, there’s the cost of attending a trade show, but also the time spent preparing for the show and staffing the store while they’re gone.
5. A needlework company said it only exhibited at the TNNA hotel shows; the large, convention-center shows are too expensive for the number of buyers they attract.
So what’s the future?
1. Needlework already has a virtual trade show. Visit http://www.needleworkshow.com.
2. Another site that is for business-to-business transactions – without trade shows: www.alibaba.com.
3. Consider how much technology has improved in the past decade. You can assume it will improve again at least as much in this new one. In just the first two months of this decade, Google announced it was testing a system that is 100 times faster than broadband, and 3-D TV sets were unveiled at the Consumer Electronic Show.
4. The end result? Buyers will be able to remain in their offices and stores and visit any vendor’s virtual booth any time. But what about the lack of personal interaction? A CLN subscriber told me she toured Steven Spielberg’s Hollywood DreamWorks studio and saw a conference room with technology so advanced that a person could have a meeting with people thousands of miles away and feel like everyone was sitting at the same table – and making eye contact. GoToMeetings.com is just the start.
Some things we do know
Rest assured, the cost of travel, hotels, and food will increase. Exhibitors will also have higher expenses for building and shipping a booth. If a buyer can attend seminars and see new products without those costs, will he/she continue to attend trade shows? And if the number of buyers attending a show declines, won’t exhibitors reach a tipping point and decide a show – any show – is not worth it?
The downside of all this is incalculable: The lack of networking, squeezing out independents who can’t afford the fancy, yet-to-be-invented technology, and the increased difficulty of a new vendor breaking into the market, to name a few. The result will be a touch-and-feel industry that loses its touch. The greatest value of trade shows is intangible, but as beancounters assume more and more control of the companies, they will ask, “Explain to me again why we have to spend $50,000 on a trade show?”
Think of it this way: for the exhibitors who pay the bills for a show, trade shows are a form of advertising. David Ogilvie, the founder the famous ad agency Ogilvie & Mather, defined it this way: “Advertising is what you do when you can’t go see somebody.” If a company can “see” its customers – and they can “see” the company – without a trade show, what will happen to the show?
I don’t like what I’m predicting, and by 2020, I probably will have been led off to the Home for Confused Journalists. But for those of you who plan to be in business 10 years from now, watch and be ready to change the way you do business.