Cover Story

Five Trade Shows and How They Grew

Five trade shows in varied fields — healthcare, hotel design, marijuana cultivation, woodworking, and baseball coaching — share the secrets of their success.

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These are interesting times for trade shows. Earlier this year, the Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR) reported that the industry finished last year on a down note — with the performance of B2B shows declining in the final quarter of 2016 after 25 consecutive quarters of year-over-year growth. While CEIR doesn’t think it’s anything to worry about — “All the underlying fundamentals that our economists believe are essential to a healthy exhibition industry are still there,” CEO Cathy Breden told Convene at the time — the news seems to square with economic forecasts that predict a U.S. recession sometime this year.

But that hasn’t stopped some exhibitions from growing as much as ever. In April, Trade Show Executive magazine recognized the best of the best with its “Fastest 50” program, honoring the 50 fastest-growing shows in the United States in 2016 based on net square feet, number of exhibiting companies, and number of attendees. What’s their secret? To find out, Convene spoke with the organizers of five of the Fastest 50 — nearly all of whom mentioned a willingness to experiment, and the ability to truly understand their attendees’ and exhibitors’ specific needs.

American Society of Healthcare Engineering Annual Conference & Technical Exhibition

2016 show: Colorado Convention Center, Denver, July 10–13

Last year’s American Society of Healthcare Engineering (ASHE) Annual Conference & Technical Exhibition saw more than 3,800 attendees, including health-care engineers, technicians, facility managers, administrators, safety and security professionals, and construction and design professionals. ASHE 2017, scheduled for the Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis on Aug. 6–9, is already tracking ahead of last year’s numbers, according to Meeting and Special Events Manager Kevin Brown, CMP. “We are hopeful that we can soon break another attendance record,” Brown said, “with more than 4,000 attendees.”

Brown attributes his show’s growth to several factors, including “an increase in ASHE membership as more people are seeking education and information related to the health-care physical environment,” he said. “A major reason for recent growth relates to regulatory changes. The government has adopted new requirements for health-care facilities, and our conference provides education on these regulations. We bring regulatory experts to the event to help attendees understand these important changes and implement strategies for keeping their facilities in compliance.” 

Healthy Show ASHE attributes its annual event’s growth in part to a need for members to stay on top of recent regulatory changes for health-care facilities.
Healthy Show ASHE attributes its annual event’s growth in part to a need for members to stay on top of recent regulatory changes for health-care facilities.

ASHE works to capitalize on that growing interest by adding new offerings to the conference every year. “Our changes are often baby steps rather than complete overhauls, because the show is growing and we want to stick with what works,” Brown said. “At the same time, we’re constantly adding new features to provide a better experience for attendees.”

One of the more popular new offerings is the ASHE Connect Lounge, a space in the exhibit hall where “attendees can network with and ask questions of plenary speakers and leaders in the field,” Brown said. “We also use the Connect Lounge to hold one-on-one career counseling sessions with recruiters, to provide attendees with free headshots, and to provide information on membership and certification programs. We have added an additional lounge on the exhibit-hall floor where attendees can meet officials from accrediting organizations. This allows members to ask questions about codes and standards, and get answers directly from accreditation officials — a unique opportunity for attendees responsible for compliance in their health-care facilities.”

The show’s growth has also created challenges, especially when it comes to managing the physical space. “We work very closely with our partner hotels and convention centers,” Brown said. “We constantly monitor the attendance numbers, so we can make the changes as soon as possible instead of waiting until the last minute to adjust.”

Among other tactics, ASHE has added alternative viewing areas. “In addition to an over ow room for plenary sessions, we also provide live broadcasts of plenary sessions in lounge areas, so attendees who want to catch up on work or network with other attendees can also follow along,” Brown said. “We have also used our large plenary-session rooms for additional breakout sessions instead of just the keynote, general, and closing sessions.”

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Boutique Design New York

2016 show: Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, New York City, Nov. 13–14

Before Boutique Design had an annual trade fair, the media outlet published a print magazine as well as digital content centered on hospitality design, and held several smaller face-to-face events each year. But since Boutique Design New York (BDNY) was launched seven years ago, the show has grown exponentially.

“One of the things that has been successful for us is the integration of all of our brands,” said Michelle Finn, president of Hospitality Media Group, which produces BDNY. “Our sales team isn’t just selling trade-show booths, they’re selling magazine ads, they’re selling online sponsorships, they’re selling trade-show sponsorships, they’re selling multiple products to one customer. The approach has been successful for us because our sales team is extremely knowledgeable in the market we serve.”

Floor Samples Serving the hospitality-design industry, BDNY doesn’t look at its trade show as an opportunity for exhibitors to rent space as much as to create a marketplace.
Floor Samples Serving the hospitality-design industry, BDNY doesn’t look at its trade show as an opportunity for exhibitors to rent space as much as to create a marketplace.

BDNY 2016 saw approximately 7,200 attendees and 625 exhibitors, and utilized 111,000 square feet of exhibit space. The inaugural show in 2010 had 1,929 attendees and 144 exhibitors over 20,000 square feet. For BDNY 2017, scheduled for the Javits Center on Nov. 12–13, Finn anticipates about 650 exhibitors and 130,000 square feet of space. She credits the show’s impressive growth trajectory to its location. “There’s a high concentration of hotel companies within [the New York] region,” she said, “so we benefit from that.”

And as the show grows, so does Boutique Design’s credibility. “As we got larger, we became more relevant,” Finn said. “As [BDNY] builds, we took more of a leadership position and became more of a resource for our attendee base, for products and also for education.” Boutique Design has to continually seek out new talent with the skills necessary to adapt to a constantly changing industry. “Not everybody’s doing that in our industry,” Finn said.

Boutique Design’s philosophy is also important. For the organization, it’s not just about selling exhibit space. “For us, it’s all about the fusion of marketplaces and real estate,” Finn said. “Too often, trade-fair companies look at trade shows like you’re renting space, but we look at it as creating marketplaces as well.”

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Marijuana Business Conference & Expo

Spring 2016 show: Gaylord Palms Resort & Convention Center, Kissimmee, Florida, May 9–11

Fall 2016 show: Las Vegas Convention Center, Nov. 16–18

The Marijuana Business Conference & Expo’s (MJ Biz Con) fall and spring trade shows continue to grow as the cannabis industry grows (no pun intended), and vice versa. “The growth of these shows is tied very closely to the growth of the industry, and the growth of the industry is tied very closely to the growth of these shows,” said Cassandra Farrington, co-founder and CEO of Marijuana Business Daily, which produces MJ Biz Con. “The way MJ Biz Con came onto the scene and provided the entrepreneurs, the directors, and executives of this industry a platform that they did not have previously to convene, to get educated, to explore the infrastructure through the exhibit hall — that has created a stronger industry, which then feeds back into the growth of the show.”

Legislation dealing with cannabis has also helped the cause. “Every single show cycle, it feels like we have additional states that have come online with a legalization law,” Farrington said. “At our November event in Las Vegas last year, eight different states had just passed initiatives supporting medical or recreational cannabis in those states. Since then, we just had West Virginia push something through their legislation; they’re now coming online as a medical-marijuana state as well.” 

Joint Meetings MJ Biz Con holds fall and spring trade shows. The smaller spring show is better suited for attendees looking to ‘really engage and take time for meaningful conversations.’
Joint Meetings MJ Biz Con holds fall and spring trade shows. The smaller spring show is better suited for attendees looking to ‘really engage and take time for meaningful conversations.’

MJ Biz Con expects 14,000 attendees and more than 630 exhibitors at its 2017 fall show in Las Vegas on Nov. 15–17. This year’s spring show, held at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh in May, had 3,500 attendees and 275 exhibitors — up from 2,773 attendees and 195 exhibitors in 2016. “Both shows are growing very quickly,” Farrington said. “Our spring show, we had 22-percent attendee growth year over year and 30-percent exhibitor growth year over year. In the fall, we see 50-percent attendee growth year over year consistently, and 40-percent exhibitor growth is what we’re expecting for this coming fall.”

That exhibitor growth will more than double the square footage of the show floor from last year, from 45,640 net square feet to 105,000. Fall is growing a little more quickly than spring, which Farrington attributes to the election cycle. “There’s a lot of discussion in the media about the cannabis question leading up to those events,” she said. “So, it’s a good tie-in.” While the larger fall expo is great for attendees to make a lot of contacts within the industry, the smaller spring show provides a space to “really engage and take time for meaningful conversations, to explore those potential business relationships.”

MJ Biz Con is also seeing a boom in women entrepreneurs and executives in the burgeoning marijuana industry. “The cannabis industry has proven to be a really good home for high-quality female professionals who have hit the glass ceiling or are burned out at their corporate job, and they’re looking for a new adventure in a new industry, in a place where they can slot directly in at a founding level, at an executive level,” Farrington said. “They bring all those skills and abilities to the table, but they’re now not fighting an ingrained, inherent hierarchy in an industry that has been built over decades largely by white males.”

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International Woodworking Fair

2016 show: Georgia World Congress Center, Atlanta, Aug. 24–27

Held at Atlanta’s Georgia World Congress Center (GWCC) every other year, the International Woodworking Fair (IWF) has seen double-digit attendance growth since 2012. And IWF 2016 marked the third consecutive show that saw growth in both attendance and exhibitors. “We do a very good job of maximizing the yield on the floor plan,” said Jim Wulfekuhle, IWF’s vice president of sales and marketing. “We make sure that as close as we can get to every inch of available space in the halls, that we maximize that.”

There were 27,260 attendees and 1,079 exhibitors at IWF 2016 — up from 14,400 attendees and 900 exhibitors in 2014. For 2018, slated for the GWCC on Aug. 22–25, Wulfekuhle predicts at least another 10-percent bump in attendance. Part of IWF’s growth strategy involves data. “When the economy went soft, we determined that we had to revisit how we were looking at things,” Wulfekuhle said. “One of those was based on data we’d been collecting from our attendees.”

Specifically, IWF “intensively” studied what its data had to say about exhibitor needs. “This was in relation to exhibit surveys and looking at areas that we were leaving on the table,” Wulfekuhle said, “where there was potential, but we weren’t taking advantage of it yet.” 

Splintered Approach Instead of looking at IWF attendees as one homogenous group, organizers have added programming that is tailored to areas of interest specific to designers, architects, builders, and a wide range of other professionals.
Splintered Approach Instead of looking at IWF attendees as one homogenous group, organizers have added programming that is tailored to areas of interest specific to designers, architects, builders, and a wide range of other professionals.

Every show cycle, IWF tries to bring in at least 100 new exhibitors,” Wulfekuhle said, “to breathe new breath into the halls.” That has meant thinking internationally about the exhibitor pool. “We had an agent in China, and then we added an agent in Turkey,” Wulfekuhle said, “which allowed us an opportunity to get face-to-face with people that we want to reach.” Similarly, IWF began diversifying its approach to attendees, whom it had tended to treat as one homogenous group, but now “started drilling down to who they were.” Attendees include designers, architects, builders, and a wide range of other professionals in the woodworking industry, so Wulfekuhle and his team decided to add educational programming that was tailored to their specific areas of interest. “It starts as education,” he said, “and then it evolves onto the floor.”

Along with new education sessions, IWF added pavilions to the show floor, dedicated to areas such as cabinets and closets, countertops, and flooring.“That led to growth as well,” Wulfekuhle said. “We have two different parts of our show. One is very design-oriented and one is very production-oriented, so we determined to add those areas.”

A little rewording in IWF’s branding also went a long way. Because most people don’t associate machinery with “woodworking,” the show started to go by its acronym—IWF—so as not to limit its reach. “We started putting more effort into the design elements as far as promoting the show,” Wulfekuhle said, “whether that be direct mail or print ads or electronic.”

IWF added video promotions between its 2012 and 2014 shows, and by 2016 was using YouTube for them, which has been very successful. “We had 3.5 million impressions and 500,000 views,” Wulfekuhle said, “from a very short window of mid-June to opening day in August.”

The show is also working to create new experiences for attendees, including an experiment in which organizers put GoPro cameras on three attendees — wood-manufacturer business owners — and had them walk and shop the show floor at the 2016 show, posting the video online. IWF also used Facebook Live last year to demonstrate products and test out new technology on the show floor. (Read a Convene article about this initiative at convn.org/IWF-FB-live.)

Those strategies, Wulfekuhle said, are part of a larger effort in the digital space. In 2016, IWF taped all of its education sessions to create an online portal for people around the world who couldn’t attend the live show. “We want to capture new names of new people,” he said, “and introduce them to the IWF brand.”

IWF has even bigger plans for digital moving forward. “We’re looking to create online personalities,” Wulfekuhle said, with the goal of having people in the industry look to IWF as a place for resources that extend well beyond the biannual trade fair. “You want to retain your customers,” Wulfekuhle said. “People say, ‘Well, you got all these shows on your calendar, what are you going to do?’ So, we put our brand in front of them and make that next step.”

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ABCA Convention

2016 show: Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center, Nashville, Jan. 7–10

The very first ABCA (American Baseball Coaches Association) Convention was held in 1945, and it was pretty bare bones. “It was more or less some guy from Rawlings [Sporting Goods] throwing up a table in the hallway of a hotel and saying, ‘These are the mitts I’m selling, these are the cleats I’m selling,’ and that was your trade show,” said Juahn Clark, ABCA’s director of exhibits and branding.“We’ve had a long time to get this right.”

The ABCA Convention has significantly upgraded from a hotel hallway. In 2017, the group used 140,000 square feet of exhibit space for 4,515 attendees and 307 exhibitors across the Hilton and Marriott hotels in Anaheim, California, on Jan. 8–10. More than 6,000 attendees and 330 exhibitors are expected across 190,000 square feet at the Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis on Jan. 4–7. “Our executive director, Craig Keilitz, has been on board with being entrepreneurial,” Clark said, “and not assuming that we know our group, but really asking them questions and listening to what they have to say.”

Hitting Streak The ABCA Convention has grown by adopting a trick from its members: Never take your eye o the ball — i.e., ‘keep ahead of the trends.’
Hitting Streak The ABCA Convention has grown by adopting a trick from its members: Never take your eye o the ball — i.e., ‘keep ahead of the trends.’

One of the ways ABCA has grown the show is by making it more attractive to exhibitors through such measures as keeping attendees under one roof as much as possible — “so the baseball coaches can feel that energy,” Clark said. “Vendors can feel and take advantage of that energy as well. We always aim to have our group together as much as we can.” 

Another trick is something ABCA picked up from its members. “Never take your eye off the ball,” Clark said. “What it means is, keep[ing] ahead of the trends, and challenging our members to do things creatively, and doing things differently than we did the year before. We’re all creatures of habit, so it’s difficult to change, but we can do things like try new, tactical ways for marketing to our members that we hadn’t had the year before, like using social media outlets to ask members about educational subject matter more often.

“You need a willingness to step out of the normal path you’ve taken in years past,” Clark said. “I think our vendors and members expect that to happen each year. It creates a little bit of excitement.”

Rate Your Performance 

Curious about how your trade show is doing compared to others? The Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR) can help. The free CEIR Index Event Performance Analyzer lets you benchmark your show against the four metrics of the CEIR Index: net square feet, number of exhibitors, professional attendance, and revenue. It also compares you to the overall performances of your sector and the exhibitions industry. Learn more at ceir.org/event-performance-analyzer.

Test Time

Earn one clock hour of certification credit. Once you’ve finished reading this article, read the following material:

Future Trends Impacting the Exhibitions and Events Industry, a 2016 report from the International Association of Exhibitions and Events, available at convn.org/iaee-2016.

To earn certification clock hours, visit pcma.org/convene-cmp-series to answer questions about information contained in this CMP Series article and the additional material.

Sarah Beauchamp