What Trade Show Still Rocks After 110 Years?

The NAMM Show is a huge, rock-star-packed, decibel-bending, four-day mix of all things music — with a surprisingly simple pricing model for exhibitors. Convene was on site in Anaheim this year to see what makes the entire production rock.

Each year, more than 90,000 attendees converge on Anaheim for the NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) Show. It’s a 520,412-net-square-foot trade show for the $16.3-billion global music-products industry; a four-day series of concerts by hundreds of performers, from Sir Elton John to the Grammy Award-winning Mariachi Divas; and an educational bootcamp on the latest in music developments — all rolled into one. But more than anything else, it’s a reunion. 

That became apparent the day before the 111th NAMM Show, which was held on Jan. 24-27, opened. I was standing in the lobby of the Anaheim Convention Center (ACC), looking out at a gray sky. The ground was wet from the drizzling rain forecasted to continue throughout the next few days. This was an anomaly for perpetually sunny Anaheim, and on this particular day, clearly bad timing. Tomorrow, the ACC was set to cut the ribbon on its brand-new Grand Plaza — a beautifully landscaped, 100,000-square-foot outdoor event space — and kick off the NAMM Show with soul group Tower of Power and about 12,000 friends.

But Kevin Johnstone, NAMM’s director of trade shows, didn’t seem fazed. In fact, he seemed calm, even ebullient, about the days ahead as he took our group of journalists around NAMM’s show floor. In between taking calls, dodging forklifts, and saying hello to longtime friends that he was seeing for the first time in a year, Johnstone told us which celebrities to watch out for (Randy Jackson and Eddie Van Halen) and replayed some of the craziest moments from the last 18 years that he has produced the NAMM Show. We’d been there five minutes, and we were already part of the NAMM family.

Music is big business, and the tight-knit, tattoo-emblazoned, band-ofbrothers vibe we sensed at the show’s outset demonstrated that it’s an industry rooted in relationships. The NAMM Show “is not just a place for people to come and write and take orders,” Johnstone said. “It’s a community reunion. Our members see the majority of these people once a year at the NAMM Show, so we try to enhance the experience with live music and after-hours events so they can not only do business together, but renew their friendships every year.”

Can You Turn That Down, Please?

Such a huge production comes with its own special set of challenges, and chief among them is the issue of sound. As we walked through the show floor, we passed row after row of every kind of instrument imaginable, along with all of the accessories and amplifiers that can make them Jimi Hendrix-level loud. Add to this a roster of live-music performances that kick off and end the show every day, and it’s easy to see why sound-control officers — “noise narcs,” as Johnstone calls them — would be necessary. Not only do they patrol the show floor to make sure that exhibitors aren’t exceeding 85 decibels when demonstrating their products, they keep an ear on the live-music performances scheduled throughout the day inside and outside the convention center, to ensure that they don’t drown out important business deals.

“We’re a music show,” Johnstone said. “There should be live music and you should be greeted with live music. The challenge is making sure the live music isn’t having a negative impact on the exhibit experience. Our exhibitors are trying to do business over the sound of a concert, which is not a desirable situation.”

It’s also one of the reasons why the addition of the ACC’s new Grand Plaza drew such a warm welcome (despite the cold rain) at its debut on the first day of the NAMM Show, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony performed by “American Idol” judge Jackson and others. In years past, the show would construct its main performance stage in the center’s lobby, which presented a number of challenges — including sound control, limited space, poor acoustics, and congestion issues. But this year and at future shows, the new Grand Plaza main stage gives performers a concertquality setup with enough space for a 12,000-guest audience.

Crowd Control

Another challenge for NAMM — common among many trade shows — is ensuring that the bulk of attendees are qualified buyers. In almost all cases, registration is complimentary for NAMM members, and each of NAMM’s 8,600 member companies is allocated a certain number of visitor badges, intended for significant others and family members. But as the show has evolved over the years to include more big-name rock-star attendees, those guest badges have been redirected to many other starry-eyed visitors. An influx of nonindustry visitors on the trade-show floor just isn’t great for business.

“We’re trying to get it back to the industry and their invited guests,” Johnstone said. “We started a marketing campaign with exhibitors about eliminating the number of non-industry attendees on their lists that were coming. We also did a great deal to eliminate anyone under 18 who wasn’t an artist or a storeowner’s family member. We had a tremendous number of young people who weren’t part of the industry and were there for the autographs and to be part of the NAMM experience.”

The campaign seems to have paid off: The number of buyers this year jumped up 4 percent, and the number of non-industry guests decreased by 16 percent. “We’re going to tighten the requirements further and address the allotment issues moving forward,” Johnstone said. “It’s an industry show, and it needs to stay an industry, business-to-business show.”

Leveling the Playing Field

With its packed trade-show floor, it’s surprising to learn that NAMM steers clear of big-ticket sponsorships. There are no oversized banners hawking an exhibitors’ latest product in the lobby, and exhibitors all pay the same rate for booth space — a model that show organizers adopted more than 25 years ago to level the playing field for everyone. “At the time, a lot of trade shows were [offering] add-on sponsorship opportunities, which drove costs up considerably for those who participated and put a burden on those who couldn’t necessarily afford it,” Johnstone said. At NAMM, “everyone pays the same amount for booth space at the show, and we don’t hit them up with additional opportunities to spend money. [We decided] that that was the best and fairest way.”

Only in the last few years has NAMM begun to offer a select number of advertising opportunities available to — and affordable enough for — any exhibitor. They include a mobile app for smartphones, with maps, schedules, and the like; a new product showcase (new for sponsorships this year); and recognition opportunities for companies that provide equipment for the show’s live-music acts, which have been available for sponsorships since 2003.

Sponsorships aren’t the only area where NAMM does things a little differently. With a celebrity-heavy crowd that often tops 90,000 during the course of four days, NAMM has unusual security requirements. Johnstone works with the Anaheim police and fire departments to plan and train for the show, and many off-duty police, paramedics, and firefighters join the security and sound-control teams during the show.

Adding to security concerns are the mobs of non-industry guests who try to hack their way into the show to gawk and score autographs. Johnstone turns away more guests than he lets in. So almost every year, he changes or adds new security measures to combat badge counterfeiting and swapping. For the 2013 show, registration desks and badge pickup were moved to the neighboring Hilton Anaheim and Marriott Anaheim, so badges and IDs could be checked immediately at the ACC’s front doors. This allowed attendees to roam the entirety of the ACC freely, as opposed to previous shows when badges were checked every time attendees exited and re-entered the exhibit halls after grabbing a coffee from the lobby or seeing a concert at the hotel next door.

“Members loved it and we got very positive feedback,” Johnstone said. “It changed the vibe of the show, and the fact that we were able to prop all of the [exhibit-hall] doors open was very positive for those exhibitors that were across the front of the exhibit hall.”

A Perfect Partner

Anaheim might not be the most obvious choice for NAMM — cities like New York and nearby Los Angeles house far greater shares of the music industry — but NAMM members are fiercely loyal to the city their show has called home for nearly every year since 1978.

From 1998 through 2000, while the ACC completed a three-year expansion and renovation project, the NAMM Show moved to the Los Angeles Convention Center. From an association standpoint, Johnstone said, L.A.’s CVB, convention center, and hotel community were “outstanding” in working together to make the show a success. But from an attendee standpoint, the move was disruptive. “The challenge was, they had developed longstanding, personal relationships with everyone from the bellman to the local restaurant community [in Anaheim],” he said. “So we disconnected them from that. And since they knew they’d be back in Anaheim, they weren’t motivated to spend the time developing relationships in L.A.

“Our people are comfortable in Anaheim,” Johnstone said. “They love the people there.… They like walking out of the convention center, into the hotel across the street, and having a cocktail in hand within moments of leaving the show floor. More people know the name of the bartender at the Marriott than my name, and that’s just fine.”

Anaheim’s immediate convention-center campus includes the new Grand Plaza as well as multiple neighboring convention-hotel properties. The 1,572-room Hilton Anaheim and the 1,031-room Anaheim Marriott are so close that they almost serve as extensions of the show floor, housing larger exhibits, concerts, and, for the first time this year, registration and badge pickup areas. The Anaheim Marriott hosted two stages this year, and each year adds a pop-up restaurant to its lobby just for the NAMM Show; this year it served food-truck-style tacos. Even lobby décor and furnishings get updated or changed for the show.

Given that the NAMM Show is such a boon to the local economy — totaling $91.5 million in economic impact in 2013 — such accommodations make sense. In fact, the NAMM Show is so important that before he made the move to California to officially take over for retiring Anaheim/Orange County Visitor & Convention Bureau President Charles Ahlers in February, Jay Burress traveled to see the show and meet the NAMM team. “The partnership and commitment NAMM has made to Anaheim over their history is one that has helped build Anaheim’s reputation as a premier convention destination,” Burress said. “It’s one of the great trade shows in our country.”

Learning the Music

With 90,000-plus attendees and more than 520,412 net square feet of exhibit space packed to the gills with nearly 1,500 exhibitors — not to mention John Mayer just walked by — NAMM can be a distracting place. To make sure attendees don’t miss a beat, NAMM offers The Idea Center — an educational classroom in the middle of the show floor.

“NAMM is such an overwhelmingly product-focused trade show, it’s very difficult for our members to dedicate large amounts of time to education sessions,” said NAMM’s Kevin Johnstone. The sessions are about 30 minutes each and are scheduled back-to-back throughout all four days of the show. Attendees are free to walk in anytime, sit down, and put on the headphones hanging on the back of their chair to tune in (and drown out Eddie Van Halen jamming away next door). Session topics are aimed at music retailers and touch on every aspect of the industry — technology, sales and marketing, finance, retail, music education, and more.

To catch attendees before they headed to the trade-show floor, NAMM also offered NAMM University Breakfast Sessions every morning at the Hilton Anaheim next door.

Innovative Meetings is sponsored by the Irving Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Jennifer N. Dienst

Contributing Editor Jennifer N. Dienst is a freelance writer based in Charleston, South Carolina.