The echoes of turnstile ghosts — the viability of industry trade shows

As we brace for the onset of 2013 trade shows, we often ask ourselves, which ones are worth attending and which ones can I skip? One of the more popular plumbing + HVACR shows is the AHR Show ( in Dallas, January 28-30, and it is right around the corner. This show is about as highly anticipated a show as is ISH in Frankfurt Germany later this spring. Hundreds of exhibitors with the latest technology will be on display. But then there are some shows that need help with attendance, and others like the ISH U.S. show that have become extinct.

PHCC, MCAA, Greenbuild all put on great annual shows, and I know a lot of hard work and effort going into the planning and execution of them. But how about the rest? Would you consider them “niche” shows? I guess my question would be: What have we learned from tradeshows, especially in this “new” economy? I hear the reasons for not attending: too far, can’t get away from the business, location, expenses, etc. But I have also heard that if it is a worthwhile show, every attempt will be made to get that particular venue.

What about the format of tradeshows? Have they lost their luster to the point that they have become boring and too commonplace? I happen to think that trade shows still hold value, whether you are there to network, see industry friends, wheel and deal or to walk the aisles to learn more about a certain product or technology. Also, most trade shows offer top-notch seminars for visitors to attend. Shameless plug here — don’t miss the Fab Five as they present “The Mechanical Town Hall” at AHR January 28 at 1:00 p.m. (

I recently caught up with Roger Halligan, CEO of H+A International, Chicago, about the very topic of trade shows. Roger has a wealth of experience with organizing trade shows and he has hand in making AHR the successful show that it is today.

Here is Roger Halligan in his own words:

<It seems that the vast majority of business and personal communications are taking place digitally these days. It is often much easier to write a quick email or send a brief text message than to call someone on the phone.

Likewise, if you need some product or installation information, it is often much quicker to find your answers online than to call someone and discuss your needs – even if you are working in the field. Thanks to an abundance of mobile apps and cloud computing, contractors can often find most of the information they need, and manage their day, without ever talking to the home office.

So, with all these digital communication advancements, are trade shows and other face-to-face meetings still necessary? According to the tens of thousands of HVACR professionals that attend the various industry meetings every year, it would seem so.

Many trade shows, like contractors’ businesses, suffered greatly during the great economic recession of the last few years. As almost everyone’s budgets suffered, many companies had to cut back on their trade show participation and the number of people they sent to attend events was drastically reduced. As a result, some shows ceased to exist or became much smaller versions of their halcyon days.

However, the strong shows that provide a true value to the industry continued to prosper and some have now surpassed their pre-recession levels. A good case in point is AHR Expo, the world’s largest HVACR-focused trade show and conference. The 2012 event in Chicago last January set an all-time record of 60,000 attendees and more than 2,000 exhibitors.

So the obvious questions are “Why are some trade shows doing so well while others struggle”; and “Will these events continue to exist in light of increased digital communications, including the advent of virtual trade shows”?

My company has some interesting perspectives on these questions as we represent a number of trade show organizers as well as companies that exhibit at these events. Over the years, we have helped grow dozens of trade shows and have helped numerous companies maximize their trade show participation. AHR Expo, Xylem and FieldAware are among a few of our clients in the HVACR marketplace.

What we hear from most exhibitors and thousands of contractors is that the trade shows that provide true value are irreplaceable. We have interviewed countless HVACR contractors at AHR Expo over the years and the vast majority of them say that face-to-face meetings with manufacturers and their industry peers provide them with a depth of knowledge and insights they can’t get on the Internet or through any other source.

Here are a few reasons they say they will always attend trade shows:

• To see and compare new products and technologies from a vast array of companies.

• To find new manufacturers to represent.

• To discover special pricing opportunities only offered at the Show.

• To discuss specific product or installation challenges with manufacturers’ technical personnel.

• To attend educational sessions and earn certifications.

• To network with industry peers they see only once a year.

While almost every contractor said they also do online research to discover new products and technologies, it is not the same as meeting the right person face-to-face and actually feeling and touching a product. As one contractor attending AHR Expo told me “I can see everything I need to see and meet everyone I need to meet in two days at AHR Expo, but it would take me an incredible amount of time and money to try and duplicate that online and meeting with individual manufacturer reps.”

So while we are confident the strong trade shows that provide real value are here to stay, the second part of the question is “Why are some shows like AHR Expo doing so well while others struggle.” Here are some of our observations based on interviews with a variety of show managers, exhibitors and attendees.

• Shows that address all segments of the industry (like AHR Expo) or focus on specific segments (various association events) seem to be the most successful.

• Stay at the cutting edge of new technology – make sure you have educational sessions and exhibitors showcasing thinks like geothermal, biomass thermal energy, etc.

• Get leading industry associations involved, especially those focusing on new technologies (AHR Expo had 35 Endorsing Organizations).

• Exhibitors must be more motivated to promote the Show to their target audiences and provide them with incentives for coming to their booth. The show organizer’s job is to get people to the Show, not to a specific company’s booth.

• Show managers need to embrace digital marketing, social media and other communications methods of attracting attendees and exhibitors – especially the younger generations.

• Good virtual trade shows are okay for sharing information, but they will never replace face-to-face meetings.

So the bottom line is that good trade shows need to be supported by the entire industry. We all need to do a better job of making them a more valuable experience.

Many manufacturers need to be more strategic and creative about how they can use their trade show participation as a valuable marketing tool. They need to have a good trade show marketing strategy in place that includes frequent pre-show communications with their target audiences and provide incentives for visiting their booths, as well as interesting on-site activities and effective post-show communications.

Contractors and other attendees need to make the time commitment to attend the Show and do their homework in advance so they know who they want to see and what they want to talk about.

Show organizers need to continue to stay on the cutting edge of new technology, provide a valuable educational component and sharpen up their marketing outreach to attendees.

A good tradeshow benefits the entire industry and since we are all in this together, let’s support them so they truly are irreplaceable.>

Roger makes some great points. What influences your decision when it comes to attending a trade show?

I’d love to know your thoughts!




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