If exhibitors don't return to an era of metrics and measurement, the perceived value of the industry and their own careers is in jeopardy.
For the past 30 years, EXHIBITOR has tracked exhibit and event professionals' compensation via our annual Salary Survey. And while face-to-face marketers are certainly making more money now than in 1987 when we issued our first report, the average base salary has only increased 3 percent in the past four years.
Obviously, the Great Recession had a tremendous impact on the trade show industry. But its effects did little to slow the steady march of annual raises until 2011, when salaries dipped for the first time since 1996. Ever since, economic aftershocks and uncertainties have translated into static salaries.
What's more concerning is that 2016 appears to mark the beginning of a generational churn. There has been a 5-percent shift from 2015, when the majority of exhibit professionals had 11 or more years of experience. Today, more than half have been in the industry for a decade or less. Why does that matter? Because those of you who use our Salary Survey as justification for a budgetary boost are in for a disappointing surprise: As Baby Boomers retire in droves over the next few years, their positions will presumably be filled by Millennials making entry-level wages and driving down averages. In fact, barring an economic boon, I predict average salaries will remain stagnant – or decline – for the next five years.
But my prediction isn't based entirely on that generational shift. Four years into this salary stalemate, employers have learned that exhibit managers are surprisingly capable of putting in extra hours and doing more with less. As such, there's little incentive to elevate wages, especially since burnt-out Boomers are on the way out and Millennials (who tend to be less money motivated) filter in. What's more, many Salary Survey participants indicated that while they've received promotions in the past year, those promotions didn't come with the kinds of raises one might expect, given the increase in responsibilities. That indicates climbing the corporate ladder is no longer a guaranteed path to a higher pay grade.
Additionally, I worry that when the Boomers bid corporate America adieu, some of the basics of exhibiting may be lost to history. Since 2008, I've noticed a decline in measurement. Marketers who used to track leads, calculate return on investment, and report the value of brand impressions and earned media begrudgingly left those tasks by the wayside in their frantic attempt to simply get the job done. As a result, an increasing number of companies I speak with have comparably soft objectives and unquantifiable returns.
Because those companies have now gone without metrics and measurable results for nearly eight years, reporting them is no longer an expected part of exhibitors' jobs. And herein lies the problem: As the economy continues to grow at a glacial pace, experienced and high-earning Boomers leave the industry, and the status quo of overworking and underpaying employees persists, it will become increasingly important to demonstrate your value if you hope to obtain a raise. And if you're not arming yourself with the ammo to prove your program's value, how will you be able to demonstrate your own personal worth?
Granted, my dire prediction is not a foregone conclusion. But if exhibitors don't return to an era of metrics and measurement, the perceived value of both the face-to-face marketing industry and their own careers is in jeopardy. And simply bemoaning long hours and low morale isn't likely to stem the tide of salary stagnation. So focus on the value you bring to your company. Be able to enumerate how your program impacts the organization's bottom line. Tether your compensation to those contributions, and you just might find yourself leading the paycheck pack, rather than aspiring to waning industry averages. E