Five years after the so-called "Great" Recession, the industry is still struggling to gain traction and return to the promised land of business as usual. With many first-quarter trade shows posting record-breaking numbers for attendance and participating companies, it appears we're on our way to recovery. However, the aftershocks of economic collapse are still rippling through many industry sectors, and the winds of worry have been fueled by fears of fiscal cliffs and European debt. But ever the optimists, exhibitors remain hopeful that this year will produce better returns than 2012.
By Travis Stanton
ast year, The Washington Post blogger Neil Irwin wrote a piece marking the fifth anniversary of the Great Recession. In it, he penned a greeting so appropriate even Hallmark couldn't have said it better: "Happy birthday, Great Recession. May your cake be poisoned, its candles exploding, and after the party may you get hit by a truck."
Half a decade after the tides turned on the American economy, we're still wading through the wreckage. Some industries are, of course, faring better than others. And people in those sectors consider the Great Recession a thing of the past, a chapter in the history books.
IN THEIR OWN WORDS
The following quotes are a representative sampling of exhibit managers' responses to open-ended questions on how they feel about the economy and our industry.
"Last year was stellar, but we do not have the same expectation for 2013. Our budgets for this
year were set in 2012, and they do reflect increases. But now those budgets and increases are being scrutinized and adjusted."
"Drayage is the biggest ripoff in the business, followed closely by the cost of Internet and rigging, and companies are unwilling to continue to throw money down the drain for these rental services."
"We are tasked to generate stronger, more measurable results from each trade show, with much more management input on how we spend than before."
"The costs of exhibiting are exorbitant these days. We used to send a crew of 10 staffers, but we now send five."
"Our primary problem is redundancy in shows. We have too many in our industry, which makes it difficult to be effective at all of them."
But we can't turn the page just yet. European economies are stagnating at best and imploding at worst. And our own meager gains here at home are fragile, tested by fiscal-cliff fears and sequestration concerns.
As much as we hate to admit it, the Great Recession may be over, but it's still impacting our lives and our industry. Business owners, once quick to reinvest earnings, are cautiously calculating. And budget cuts aren't over for exhibitors – 24 percent have smaller trade show treasure chests this year than last.
But according to the results of our 2013 Economic Outlook survey, sponsored by Octanorm USA Inc., Optima Graphics, Brumark Total Flooring Solutions, and Cort Event Furnishings, there's hope. Lots of it. First off, while some budgets are shrinking, the majority aren't. Thirty percent of exhibitors are enjoying larger budgets in 2013 than in 2012, while an additional 46 percent are at least maintaining last year's allocations. Furthermore, the vast majority of marketers are optimistic about the future of trade shows. When asked how they feel about the current effectiveness of trade shows as a marketing medium, a whopping 83 percent reported being "optimistic" or at the very least "hopeful."
Fifteen percent are still cautious about the future of our industry and the effectiveness of live events, but they're the exception to the rule. When asked, "How confident are you that your trade show program will achieve better results in 2013 than it did in 2012?" more than 81 percent reported feeling "confident" or "extremely confident." That's 3 small percentage points up from 2011, but one giant leap compared to 2009 and 2010, when many marketers weren't sure whether their departments would survive the cutback axe unscathed.
And, generally speaking, survey respondents have reason to feel confident in their programs. While the majority attribute their rosy disposition to the fact that they feel more comfortable in their roles and better able to execute their companies' exhibit-marketing efforts in 2013, others cite an improved economy, new and improved exhibits, enhanced lead-tracking and fulfillment capabilities, and even better booth staffing as explanations for their optimism. Furthermore, the majority of exhibitors have "definite" or "tentative" plans to purchase a new booth in the next 12 months, further fueling the expectation that 2013 will be a good year for the face-to-face marketing industry.
Granted, we're not out of the woods just yet. Even the tiniest red flag on the economic horizon could still be disastrous, setting back projected progress by months, if not years. But it's worth noting that 84 percent of respondents report a hopeful optimism regarding the future of our industry. So happy birthday, Great Recession. Whether or not you get mowed over by a minivan, just promise to stay out of our way.
The following pages contain key data points from our 2013 Economic Outlook Report, along with a handful of participants' quotes in response to an open-ended question regarding their opinions on the economy and our industry. To share your thoughts on this year's survey, visit the EXHIBITOR Facebook page or our LinkedIn group and join the discussion.E