Tricks Of The Trade Show

AS a 20-year veteran of trade journalism, I was saddened recently to witness the end of an era. In the past few months, two long-established trade shows of the ag community — the British Crop Protection Council Congress and the Stockton Ag Expo — following 30-plus years of existence, called it quits. In both cases, the show organizers blamed declining attendance, coupled with industry consolidation, for ending their runs.

“It’s obviously sad, but it’s a show that’s kind of run its course,” said one observer of the Stockton event.

Of course, these incidences beg the question — are ag trade shows still necessary in our Internet-obsessed age? For a possible answer, let’s
examine what happened in my old trade industry, the beverage world.

Annually between 1950 and 1988, the trade show event for beverage makers was called InterBev. Held every fall, this show attracted upwards of 20,000 visitors and hundreds of exhibitors. Product launches, new marketing campaigns, and personnel inductions all took place at this “it” show. Private concerts by the likes of Ray Charles and Gladys Knight were regularly held for “special guests” of Coke and Pepsi.

Of course, it didn’t last. As consolidation and exhibitor costs steadily increased throughout the 1980s, the larger companies within the industry began to demand changes. They pressured InterBev’s supporters to make the show a biennial event. The organizers resisted, but ultimately gave in as the larger exhibitors stopped coming.

Today, InterBev still exists, but in a much scaled down version from its glory days. Attendance is in the 3,000 to 7,000 range, with perhaps 200
exhibitors on hand. The big exhibitors and their premier events are gone, replaced by many smaller companies looking to establish themselves in an ever-shrinking marketplace.

As for the larger exhibitors such as Coke and Pepsi, they now regularly hold “invite only” meetings with key distributors and suppliers independent of a traditional trade show, since there are so few of each group left to cater to.

So, is this the ultimate fate for all the ag industry’s once “it” trade shows? According to ag retailers, trade shows still serve an important role in their annual operations. “Trade shows allow us to see the latest equipment and technology while it is located in one spot and time to network with the
vendors we work with,” says Jim Shelton of Landmark Services Cooperative.

Still, to survive long term, I think ag trade shows will need to adopt one of two strategies. One is to maintain the “it” show status by filling the void left as “non-it” shows fold. For example, the World Ag Expo added 100,000 square feet of exhibit space this year as competing events have exited the market. Expect more to be added in 2009 now that the Stockton Ag Expo is gone.

The other survival approach is to cater to a more niche audience. The Colusa, CA, Farm Show has grown in recent years by limiting its range to local or nearby attendees and exhibitors.]

Ultimately, I think ag trade shows will continue to play an important role in the lives of ag retailers, because our industry tends to favor “kicking the tires” of the products we buy. However, the landscape will probably evolve from its current set-up, with only the very big and very focused trade shows being left when the dust finally settles.

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