The Future of Trade Shows

Greeting Card Designer Blog invited Mike Hartnett, Craft Industry Reporter, to be a special guest writer for "Social Media Month" and talk about the future of trade shows in the new media age.

Guest Writer, Mike Hartnett

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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • One vendor flies individual chain buyers to its home office.
  • 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.
  • Some vendors admitted they exhibit at a show primarily because their competitors exhibit.
  • 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?
  • 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."
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

What's the Future?
  • Another site that is for business-to-business transactions – without trade shows: www.alibaba.com.
  • 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.
  • 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 bean counters 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.

Comments on this article can be left below or sent to Mike Hartnett.
Copyright © 2010 Mike Hartnett


Andy Mathis said...

I agree with Mike. Technology is changing the landscape. 15 years ago, one had to do the tradeshows, print ads, and direct mail to get work in front of buyers.

Now, all you need is good photos, and a way to send them as a pdf.

I think some people will still prefer to do business face to face. As humans, I think we crave and look for that connection. But if it becomes more efficient and cheaper to do business the new way, that will become the norm for how business is conducted.

Melissa Marro said...

I agree that technology is changing on both ends of the spectrum. Actually I'm in the process of launching a social network community for the arts, crafts & hobby industry where all of the people you mentioned will be able to reach out directly through blogs all housed within neat little communities geared directly toward a consumer looking for that industry - all while being able to keep their own brand and links to their site.

Things they are a changin' and I think it's time the industry embrace the change...

Carolyn said...

Excellent article Mike, and on point. I have seen trade shows declining for several years, and it seems inevitable that they will become obsolete for the very reasons you state. Technology and progress are great, but they force change on many industries and we all have a lot of adjusting to do.

Lorrie Grainger Abdo said...

Absolutely true. This is not an industry-specific issue. This has been going on in the toy business for years and will continue along the same lines you've outlined for the craft industry. Good article.

Jeannene Langford said...

Thanks for the great question Kate. - Mike is the best professional journalist to speak for the Craft Industry. The summer CHA show has been flailing for years and was only boosted up when the surge of scrapbooking hit the market. The winter show (always hard to call it winter when it is down in southern CA) is the ONLY US Craft show to attend.

I would be interested in knowing how this plays out in the global picture. Paperworld which is in Frankfurt is much bigger and combines industries other than craft like office and gift. What are the stats for that show?

The two strongest pulls away from trade shows are technology and the change in the players away from independents to a handful of majors. Who needs trade shows when you can get an appt. through your rep. group?

This was even true when I was the Creative Director for Duncan/PSX. The major clients always had an exclusive preview before the show and product lines would get redesigned repackaged and manufactured according to their needs. New clients would be next in line. Independents would first see it at the show or right before. Of course this all depends on who your clients are. Here I am talking about the larger companies.

I also can confirm the decision to exhibit sometimes IS mostly about letting people know you are still in business so you don't start loosing business.

As an artist, I am told by licensing agents that shows are not as near as important as Calls for Art. However, I still believe they are important TODAY when you are just establishing your company and building relationships. As for tomorrow, we'll see.....

Barney Davey said...

The facts are nothing is the same as before. We have witnessed an overhaul how business is done in virtually every industry. One only need study the relative size of tradeshows and trade magazines, past and present, to see the dramatic difference. Is there life left in old school media and shows? Yes, but those who will benefit the most are those who have other aspects of their marketing built to last. That would be great lists, both snail and email, a viable e-commerce enabled Website, and preferably a strong social media presence and ongoing publicity. A recent Art Print Issues blog post titled, Perspective on Success and Visual Artists ~ It Never Was Easy. The gist is if you pine for the old days, you either weren't fully engaged or have forgotten building a successful career was not any easier then than now. It is just different.