01 Dec 2019

Trade Show Growth Spurt Starting to Slow

The latest ECEF Pulse Survey paints an interesting picture of an expo industry that, while still growing in key metrics, is starting to lose some of the postrecessionary momentum it has been enjoying in recent years. The results, released at the annual Exhibition & Convention Executives Forum in Washington, D.C., in late May, are based on responses from 200 C-level association and independent show organizer executives. The survey was conducted by Freeman and Lippman Connects.

Approximately half the respondents said their events were still seeing growth in the number of exhibiting companies, net square feet sold and sponsorship sales. However, just five years ago the percentage claiming growth in these key metrics was closer to three-quarters.

The fourth key metric, attendance, also is a mixed bag. The good news is that the four-year attendance slide did undergo a small reversal, with 47 percent reporting growth in 2019, compared to 45 percent last year. This may, at least in part, be due to the fact that 45 percent also said they were spending more on attendee promotion and marketing, while 49 percent made no changes to their attendee acquisition budgets. While it intuitively makes sense that there is a correlation between attendee marketing dollars spent and attendee growth, it is borne out in the data, which shows the last spike in attendance growth, which happened in 2014, coincided with an increase in attendee acquisition spending on the part of 62 percent of respondents that year.

The bad news, however, is that just 47 percent feel confident that they will be able to continue to grow attendance, down from 53 percent last year. In fact, growing attendance remains the top challenge for show organizers, with 66 percent of respondents saying they find it extremely or very challenging, up from 61 percent last year. Proving exhibitor return on investment is the second biggest challenge — see the Summer issue of MeetingMentor for some tips on how to do just that — followed by staying current with event tech, and a shrinking universe of exhibitors, thanks to mergers and acquisitions in their exhibitor bases. Independent show organizers added competing events in the U.S. or internationally to their roster of top challenges.

Profitability Prospects Shrinking
Pessimism also is on the upswing when it comes to the prospect of profitability, the Pulse Survey found. While 54 percent reported that their last event increased its profitability by an average of 8 percent, and a similar percentage said they expect next year’s events to perform even more profitably, that is the lowest percentage forecasting increased profitability in the past five years.

That isn’t stopping event organizers from launching new events, however. Forty-eight percent said they plan to launch a new event — and 44 percent said a new conference or forum launch is on their agenda.

Threats and Opportunities
One threat respondents said is of increasing significance is exhibiting companies diverting their marketing budgets to digital and online channels, something almost a third identified as a concern in 2019, up from 20 percent last year.

Then there are the event technologies that organizers said are disrupting their business. Almost half of respondents said the top tech disruptor this year was 24/7/365 platforms connecting attendees and exhibitors, something just over a third said was the case last year. Perhaps in response to outside organizations that could poach their attendees with ongoing online platforms, 42 percent said they either already have added or are planning to add a digital extension to their events to increase year-round audience engagement (74 percent), strengthen their event brand (73 percent) and offer event content to those who couldn’t make the event in person (61 percent).

Other disruptive technologies identified in the research are artificial intelligence, predictive analytics, and virtual and augmented reality. While only 22 percent said gamification of the attendee experience is shaking up their events, that was a big jump from the 12 percent who said the same in 2018.

For more information on ECEF Pulse, contact Sam Lippman at (703) 979-4904, — Sue Pelletier