A Good or Bad Time to Be in the Tech Show Biz?

This post written by Chris Brown,
Executive Vice President, Conventions and Business Operations
National Association of Broadcasters

I wish I knew . . . for sure anyway.

Without a doubt there are some helpful clues in the 2012 CEIR Index Report.  I read the report’s overall analysis and section on the Communications and IT Sector with great interest.  As always, the analysis is extremely well done, comprehensive and insightful.  It is a must read if you produce shows in the tech sector.  Yet, after reading, I found myself still hoping against hope for some magic answer; some pure and definitive answer to the question, “if you want to future-proof your event, what does the data suggest?  What can we expect?”  I think the answer is mostly sunny with some clouds and a chance of light rain.  In other words, we are in good shape . . . but don’t fall asleep at the wheel.

One thing we have all come to live with in the exhibition industry over the last few years is the fact that the job of trying to predict where things are headed has never been tougher (speaking of predicting, make sure you put the CEIR Predict Conference on 12 September in New York on your calendar– it is where all this gets discussed and sorted).  We know our shows are tied to the overall economy and underneath that are the industries that drive our specific events.  The problem is even though here in the U.S. we have survived the terrible recession of 2009 and things are looking up – significantly up in some cases as it relates to certain sectors and shows serving them – it seems to me we are still generally not feeling all that bullish about what is ahead.  At least I don’t see a lot of chest pounding or high-fiving going on anywhere …. and certainly not all that much among exhibition organizers.

There are some positive signs, but there are also some signs that are confusing or even troubling.  The CEIR Index Report cites good news relative to the residential housing market, consumer confidence and spending and a few other key factors that were tied deeply to the recession.  On the other hand, the report also points toward some less than stellar news on the employment side, a variable that has direct impact on trade shows.  It also points out that there is great uncertainty surrounding the policies and effectiveness of our government, something that tends to cause the business community to act with an abundance of caution – not good for show biz, and a factor that hurt our results as an industry in late 2012 and so far in early 2013.

Those of us in the Communications and IT sector know all too well about business cycles.  Most of us rode the big bubble in the late 90’s, and got pounded when it burst in 2000.  We watched a portion of our business not only fall off, but literally disappear. That is sobering.  We took it hard on the chin again in 2009, followed by another body blow in 2010.  The good news is that while the pain we experienced from 2009-2010 was deep, the rebound has been relatively swift.  Most of us saw our attendance recover within a year of the recession and it has been growing ever since, and based on the CEIR predictive data it looks like the growth is likely to continue for a couple of more years.  Led by that positive attendance trend, the Index also predicts that the sector’s growth will outpace the overall industry.  So it appears those of us in this bucket have to live with a bit of feast or famine as it relates to how our events are shaped by broad economic swings.  We can get hit a bit harder when the trend is down, but we also prosper a bit more when the trend is moving the right way.  So with the current trend being up, much of the CEIR Index Report holds good news for the communications/IT sector.  But the aforementioned head-scratcher data points (employment, government policy) also apply.  These could be potential drags.

Layered on all of this is the somewhat unique condition of the Communications/IT sector at the moment; and that is the fact that we appear to be moving through a period of profound change across just about every facet of the sector.  The Internet, mobile communications, telecommunications more broadly, media and entertainment, computing and IT infrastructure – all are converging, integrating, blurring, you name it, and we appear to be approaching an inflexion point where many of the traditional sectors and models will be reshuffled or reinvented.  They may or may not resemble the constructs to which we have become accustomed.  For shows in this space it means that the exhibitors and attendees of the future are not likely to be the same exhibitors and attendees of the present.  This also means that many of the shows that exist today may not exist tomorrow, or will at least look quite different.  The only question is really how quickly this will all take place.

So, what to do? Well, I don’t know about you, but in my world it is always easier to invest when times are good.  Boards, investors, whoever ultimately signs the checks – they tend to be more open to putting money back into the business when they expect the results to be decent.  So, that would suggest that we should take advantage of this relatively stable macroeconomic environment to put some money into our shows.  You might also decide to put some of that money into getting to know your market and your customers better.  Conduct research; get out in the field, rub elbows.  We may not be able to totally eliminate the effect of the next downturn (there will be one), but we can do our best to be driving new audience so that the effect is minimized.  Keep striving to make your show an absolute can’t-miss event.  And, it may be easier said than done in some organizations, but now is not a bad time to experiment; stick your neck out a bit on some bigger ideas and look to build on them, or learn from the experience; fail fast.  If you manage the risk, chances are you can withstand any sort of fallout.

Back to the question laid out in the title of this blog.  Is it a good or bad time to be in the Tech Show Biz?  Again, although elusive, the answer is probably: it is not a bad time …. but it is also not a time to get too comfortable.  Better to continue investing in our shows – build on strengths, correct weaknesses, stay very close to our customers and sectors in general, listen, guide to their needs and serve them.  And if you are launching shows, the tech sector still has terrific upside and not just in the short-term.  There is volatility, yes, but there is also great opportunity as the pace and magnitude of change in the sector opens up niches almost continuously.  You just have to be ready to roll with the punches.

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