Are Trade Shows a Thing of the Past?

As small business owners, we are often tantalized by the promise of the trade show. Our guest blogger Frank McCabe shares his thoughts on the effectiveness of trade shows.
Frank McCabe is Vice President of Marketing & Communications at The Beacon Group – a Massachusetts-based construction, logistics and facility services firm

Trade Shows – a long time sales and marketing tool used in every industry. If you have not had the (insert chuckle) pleasure of attending a trade show, allow me to relay the experience. Basically, industry professionals cluster into a crowded exhibit hall or conference center to display their products and services – typically occupying 10’ x 10’ spaces all in a row. Picture endless aisles of booths and banners filled with overzealous sales people just dying to spray their victims with verbal garbage about whatever it is they are selling.

Years ago, trade shows made a lot of sense for business development. These events provided a venue where buyers could seek out a variety of products and services in one spot versus hours of research and endless sales people at their doors. For sellers, trade shows provided an audience of buyers in one location and the opportunity for lead generation far exceeding any week (if not month) of sales calls. It made sense and has been a part of nearly all businesses for a very long time.

OK, here is the bad news, and a reality – trade shows are reaching extinction. Like dinosaurs and quality sitcoms – they are quickly becoming a thing of the past. Like the Tyrannosaurus Rex and Seinfeld before them, trade shows are swiftly vanishing from existence. Sure, trade shows still take place every day in every city in every industry…but I would argue they have become an unnecessary business tool.

In today’s world, why do we need to spend money and time to travel to some random city to find a product or service we are in need of? You have heard of Google, right? In less than 5 seconds I can find 700 places to purchase second hand lawn mower wheels…why in the world would I need to travel to East Bumbleberry, Kansas to attend the International Association of Pre-Owned Lawn Mower Parts Distributors (IAPOMPD for you acronym freaks!) Annual Conference?

B to B (‘Business to Business’) Magazine reports budgets for trade show exhibiting are expected to decline 17% this year, while the number of trade shows that exhibitors are planning to participate in should drop by about the same amount, according to the Trade Show Exhibitors Association (TSEA).
According to TSEA’s newly released “2009 Exhibit Marketing Survey,” budgets for exhibiting will decrease to an average of $381,000 per company this year, down from last year’s $459,100. In addition, the average number of trade shows that companies expect to exhibit at this year is 25, down from 30 last year.
Those facts aside, let me make a confession – I have exhibited at many trade shows. I have been that pathetic soul trying to get your attention. If you have not lived a day in the life of a trade show exhibitor, it’s easy to explain. It feels like the you are the third string trombone player in the high school band, its 2 weeks before prom and you don’t have a date yet – your prospects are VERY limited and you will solicit anyone who will listen to you…even if it means begging or bribery.

And that’s why trade shows are becoming a thing of the past – no one needs to be harassed to find something they need. Head for the internet instead of the airport.

Take the time to carefully review your annual marketing spend and determine if your usual trade show schedule really makes sense? Look at the return on investment from the past 3 years’ trade shows? How many leads converted to actual business?

Look into more current (and oftentimes less costly) lead generation techniques such as search engine optimization services, website traffic tracking, and webinars – it may be time to make a change?


  1. Ed Jones says:

    Not so Fast! It is unfortunate that the writer has such a negative personal experience and view of trade shows, however that view is not prevalent among the majority of conference and trade show visitors.

    We conduct primary research, event measurement and ROI estimation for exhibitors and companies who hold conferences and shows. We consistently find that the exhibition is one of the major values of a conference among participants. More than 80% place high value on being able to find out what is new, see and touch products and solutions and make contacts with companies and people who can make things happen. The participating companies frequently provide valuable conference content and financial support for the conference and the association or host.

    Exhibitors accomplish low cost meetings with high value contacts, customer relationship management, promotion value, cost reduction and expense avoidance and the opppotunity to influence the press.

    Exhibitions and trade shows are far from useless and extinction. Digital and social media enhance their value even more by enabling in- depth engagement and communication beyond the confines of the time frame and location.

    Ed Jones
    Constellation Communication Corp.

  2. Shaun says:

    Ed…Thanks for the education…You make several compelling points that need to be more fully considered when evaluating the trade show as a marketing & sales vehicle.

  3. Frank says:

    Thank for your feedback on my article. Obviously, one man’s opinion but I have witnessed a major decline in not only attendance but exhibitor participation at the trade shows and events I have participated in.

    With that said, I think that the quality of trade shows and conferences vary tremendously from industry to industry. Every company should carefully evaluate the landscape of trade show options as well as the specific vertical markets they wish to penetrate. If year in and year out you find success (i.e. sales!)on the trade show circut, keep doing it! If not, with today’s technology, there are other options for how to spend your sacred marketing dollars.
    Thanks again for your comments

  4. Ed Jones says:

    The statistics for 2009 show trade shows and exhibitions declined by an average of 12%. This was actually measured from the event producers’ perspective but reflects the entire scenario. (Reference CEIR Exhibition Industry Study)

    There was also a decline in 2008. These declines were coincident with the economic problems we faced as a country. The big debate now of course is, “are we in recovery and if not when will we be?”

    Many shows in 2010 are showing improved numbers. My view is the decline was largely, but not totally associated with the economy in general.

    New media will surely re-shape how we “go to market.” The mix of new media and live, face- to- face activity will be something I and a lot of other people will devote a lot of energy to in the next couple of years.


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