Most US cities have elected to have the CVB organization control the long term event bookings at municipal or state owned convention centers. The CVBs dutifully pursue events which naturally bring in the most out of town visitors. In doing so they “hold” time and space for the best prospects and discourage active pursuit of less desirable ones. Convention center sales teams are generally free to pursue events that don’t require long term reservations of dates and space. In this model however, little long term security on space and dates can be offered to events that cannot demonstrate high numbers of out of town attendees. Trade shows which may fall into this category and regard your city as a strong market draw will look for alternatives. It is likewise for consumer shows, which simply won’t rotate to your city or will choose a less prominent venue. Know that trade and consumer shows normally count on for four things before making venue commitments; date reliability, space reliability, financial predictability and theme protection.
The Javits Center Experience with Consumer Shows
I believe the Javits experience from 1995 to 2008 is instructive and relevant to other cities with CVBs and large convention center management teams. In my time at the Javits Center the sales and marketing arrangement was not as described above. Javits controlled its own bookings. Our board policy and directive was and probably still is to create a sales model that hosted events which brought in out of town attendees. However, there were understood conditions to this directive which, while not formally disclosed and publicized, were fundamental business tenets:
- The Javits Center received no subsidy to help pay annual expenses. Revenues had to meet or exceed expenses and we always achieved that goal. Javits management and Board of Directors never acknowledged or endorsed the now fashionable concept that convention centers are not designed and built to make money.
- Management recognized that high occupancy was key to building revenue base and understood that it was near impossible to achieve 50% occupancy without having annual recurring events. Consumer shows represented about 10% of Javits occupancy annually. Javits occupancy from 1997 through 2008 always exceeded 65%. In 3 of those years Javits exceeded 70%.
- The Javits sales and marketing approach viewed certain economic sectors as natural fits for the city. These events were recurring and would pay the license fees and expensive labor and service costs because it was in their best interests to stage their event in New York City. The NYC/CVB would argue that booking a large professional association meeting may bring 10,000 hotel room nights whereas a fashion, luxury goods or pharmaceutical trade show would only yield half of that.
- Javits had a different point of view than the above. Javits regarded the recurring shows (trade, association conventions and consumer shows alike) as annuities, something we could count on for a consistent measure of hotel room nights and revenue. Javits management lacked confidence that different large association bookings could be repeated year to year and we had certainty we were correct. The probabilities were simply too low. Also, the association RFPs which we did collaborate on with the CVB were all based on price. After 9/11 many of the license fees of competitors were often negotiated down to zero and many still are. It was in Javits best interest not to compete on that basis. For associations which had a genuine interest in New York City, especially during months of soft demand or where retained clients had flexibility, both NYC/CVB and Javits management usually worked out a suitable deal without an RFP process.
- The relationship between the NYC/CVB and Javits was always cordial and professional despite differences of opinion. Occasionally certain dialog would raise tensions and it normally occurred surrounding the NY International Automobile Show, the largest consumer show at Javits. Public officials or hotel management would publically suggest that NYC/CVB control of long term bookings would be a better method of conducting business and bring in more out of town visitors. They’d naturally point to the Auto Show which took 17 days out of the event schedule during a prime convention month. For Javits the Auto Show represented 4-5% of annual occupancy and 12-17% of annual revenue – the thing spoke for itself.
For years it was my belief that CVBs marketing and sales efforts were more aspirational than realistic. I believe now that the Great Recession has had a real sobering effect on convention center management and CVBs alike; there is not enough demand for professional meetings and tradeshows to fill the growing exhibit and meeting space supply and, rising operating deficits and subsidies are coming under greater scrutiny by board members, politicians and the media. These matters and other trends have caused more interest in consumer shows.
A Look at 2nd and 3rd Tier Cities and Convention/Exposition Centers
Any professional tension between CVBs and convention center sales teams all but disappears in second and third tier cities, where the annual event schedule is heavily populated with consumer shows. Indeed in the sample we took some convention centers had more than 50% of their major events as consumer shows. These events are relatively easy to setup and move out, ideal business for weekends. Regrettably the preferred week day business of professional association meetings, business conferences and trade shows are hard to obtain in the face of so much competition. Consumer shows therefore have become the core business by circumstance rather than design. They are material contributors to occupancy rather than occasional ”filler” business – an extra source of revenue. Below are the types of consumer shows and monthly distribution for 2nd and 5rd tier cities from our sample:
For smaller cities, many of the consumer shows are owned and run by small operators. The events tend to be highly programmed and formulaic and for some events there is a tendency for the event to become stale. Some consumer show managers have recognized this and now include celebrity appearances and expert demonstrations as part of their event program; Home and Garden events have celebrities from HGTV and Food & Wine events have celebrities from The Food Network doing live cooking demonstrations. There are these and other notable exceptions where a consumer event can attain a stature capable of attracting out of town attendees and achieving an impressive level of popularity. Six years ago these shows were described by Tradeshow Week writer Lisa Plummer as “passion events”. In the article she explained, “Representing various segments of the hobby and interest marketplace, these events boast enthusiastic fans so devoted to their pastimes they’re willing to spend discretionary income, no matter how limited, to attend.” Clearly these events don’t just happen. They are the product of well funded, creative show organizers who know the right formula to draw exhibitors and attendees. They typically follow an important rule of thumb; the more focused the event and the more committed the consumer, then the more resilient and successful the event. Their interest is more easily maintained than attendees at broad-based events, which, by contrast, can suffer sharply during an economic slowdown. The two examples are below are illustrative of this type of consumer shows taking place in smaller market areas:
- The Iowa Deer Classic – Held each year in Des Moines at the HyVee Hall & Vets Auditorium, it’s characterized as a “deer hunter’s heaven”. The 25 year old exposition brings in around 300 exhibitors – some of them are from places remote from Iowa; Africa, New Zealand, Canada and all over the US. Products from all over the world accompany the exhibits too. It’s the ideal event to popularize new brands. More than 25,000 enthusiasts attend from Iowa and all the neighboring states. The event has contests, demonstrations and educational sessions by well known experts and live entertainment. Ticket prices are very reasonable. The owner’s passion (Iowa Show Productions, Inc.) is well directed and evident in the success of the event. Des Moines has a population of just over 200,000.
- America’s Largest Antique & Collectible Shows – The owners, Palmer/Wirfs & Associates, hold six events each year in Portland OR (pop. 620,000), Puyallup (pop.39,000; nearby Tacoma pop. 200,000) and Clark County WA (pop. 450,000). Recognizing that antique collecting has is an expensive pursuit, the events are designed so that, as owner Chris Palmer explains, “Attendees can arrive with limited dollars and leave with treasures. There’s a direct connection between what you see on the show floor and most people’s lives,…. people recognize things as being part of their childhood or their grandmother’s childhood. If a hobby is a valued part of one’s lifestyle, most people will prioritize their spending to pursue that passion, and likewise, attend an event that celebrates that interest.” Their two largest shows have over 1,000 exhibit booths and draw 16,000 attendees each. The owner’s were insightful enough to recognize a consumer niche and exploited it.
A Look at Top Tier Cities and Convention Centers
In my mind the one consumer show that stands out as the winning model for its size, attendance, public support, cultural value and fun and amusement is The Paris International Agricultural Show (Salon International de l’Agriculture). The show is 9 days long and the last show had 691,038 visitors and 1,050 exhibitors. Each year it’s held at the Paris Expo Porte de Versailles starting at the end of February extending into March, just as Spring is about to arrive. The show is part festival, exhibition, consumer market and cultural celebration, and no doubt quite profitable for the event owners and managers and the Paris Expo.
There are some US consumer shows which are comparable and have worldwide stature too:
- North American International Automobile Show – Cobo Hall – Detroit – 815,575 attendees
- Miami International Boat Show – Miami Marine Stadium Park & Basin – 96,000 attendees
- The Philadelphia Flower Show – Pennsylvania Convention Center –Philadelphia – 250,000 attendees
- Art Basel – Miami Beach Convention Center – 70,000 attendees
And relatively new:
- Gen Con – Indiana Convention Center – 197,695 attendees
- Comic Con International –San Diego Convention Center – 130,000+ attendees
- New York Comic Con – Javits Center – 167,000 attendees
Consumer show operators could only obtain these attendee numbers in cities with population exceeding 1 million. They also take into account the number of potential attendees within a 3 or 4 hour drive time. Success for these events is also measured in terms of out of town attendees who stay at hotels. The 2015 Comic Con International Show had 59,228 hotel room nights and an overall economic impact of $135, 900,000 to the city. This makes consumer shows with the size and stature of those in the list above competitive with major association meetings. Important to note also is that the consumer shows are normally recurring in the same city and venue.
The percentage of consumer shows to total major events at large convention center in top tier cities is between 15- 20%.
Beyond Passion Events – The Emergence and Power of the “Cons” and Pop Culture Shows
No doubt some of you read the Wall Street Journal article “The Rise of the Cons” March 3rd 2016 by Ellen Gamerman. If not, it’s worth reading. An excerpt from her article appears below:
The industry of the ‘con’—short for convention—offers what the Internet does not: face-to-face experiences, custom swag, exclusive sneak peeks and the bragging rights that come with traveling to the spinning center of a pop-culture universe for one intense weekend. The con business also is fueled by what the Internet does best, as organizers use social media to draw crowds and mine data to predict what audiences will want next.
The beating heart of the empire is the comic con, which has morphed steadily from scattered niche events for comic-book lovers to broad pop-culture fests embracing every entertainment genre. In an effort to capitalize on recent growth, international event-planning firms have been buying up mom-and-pop cons, starting new events and diving into unexplored markets. ShowClix, a platform for live-event organizers, tallied 519 major pop-culture fan gatherings in the U.S. last year, up from 469 in 2014. The 50 new events entering the marketplace in 2015 are more than double the number of debuts in 2009.
In 2006, Comic Con was already a hit in San Diego when Reed Expositions approached the Javits Center about obtaining dates and space for a comic book event. October dates were valuable to us so the prospect of a Comic Book show held only a passing interest. Greg Topalian who was with Reed at the time was persuasive and I elected to fly in to San Diego for a look. And that’s all it took was a look and a quick walk through. Javits booked NY Comic Con. The quirky off-beat show that worked well in San Diego would certainly prosper in New York. The event has been at the Javits Center since and grown each year, now 167,000 attendees. For the Javits Center and no doubt any other large convention centers hosting a major Comic Con type event, the revenue opportunities are substantial. The show floor is populated with exhibitors such as major movie studios, television networks, recognizable publishing companies, automobile manufacturers, and software and telecommunications companies. Many have island booths and all build sophisticated exhibits with high value electric and telecommunications services. Add to that, F&B concessions and restaurant revenue and you have a top revenue producing event.
Despite the success of these shows, some experts see an over- heated followed by burn-out market coming with the Comic Con and Anime brands over saturated. If the Showclix event directory is correct, the trend points towards over 600 such events by 2017. Naturally some experts point out that serious fans already call the shows too generic, commercialized and overcrowded. The business writer Rob Salkowitz predicted that, “If the hard-core fans go, so will the exhibitors who cater to them,” he said. “Then what’s left? Cons just become another consumer event.”
The “Cons” phenomenon is not exclusively tied to comic books. The Wall Street Journal article discussed cat shows or cons, beer cons, fitness cons, quilt cons and others. Cons represents is a differentiating experience in a public setting; an opportunity for hobbyists and enthusiasts to gather and interact in a unique quirky environment which above all is fun. The creators of these events have not stumbled upon the latent demand for these shows just by intuition. There is a science behind it. The leading corporate event company Jack Morton Worldwide produced a whitepaper in 2015 entitled “What people will want from brands in 2015”. The paper is based in part on what neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists describe when an event attendee’s full range of senses are stimulated – the more memorable the meeting experience will be for them, because more parts of their brains are activated. Creators of Cons well recognize that attendees don’t just want to look or hear; they want to interact and stimulate their senses of touch, smell and taste when they visit a destination. The good Cons fulfill that need.
Another Con worthy of mention is Gen Con. In 1967 Gen Con began as a competition of war game enthusiasts in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. The event derived from its location, the name Gen Con is a shortened version of the original name “Geneva Convention”. Gen Con’s roots grew from historical war gaming popular in the 1960s. Over time it expanded to support all categories of hobby games and family entertainment. Game categories include traditional and collectible card games, board games, role-playing games, live action role-playing games, miniature war games, computer and electronic games, and hybrid games. The show is geared to an “all age” format; and with so many individual events, the show caters to youth as well as those young at heart. In 2003, Gen Con moved the U.S. event to Indianapolis, Indiana. The relocation was a resounding success. Below is a graph showing Gen Cons annual attendance history. In 2015 attendance was 197,695; this is explosive growth. The graph is instructive because it depicts the power of Cons and what can be achieved. I can imagine a graph of similar nature for San Diego and New York’s Comic Con.
Q. E. D. – A Review of Consumer Show Value
- Consumer shows contribute to convention center occupancy and revenue in a material way and, because they recur year to year, do so consistently. For 2nd and 3rd tier city convention centers consumer shows are essential for financial health.
- Consumer Shows improve weekend occupancy which is historically low in most large urban convention centers
- Although there is security sticking with consumer shows that keep with the enduring themes such as cars, home and garden, crafts, collectibles/hobbies, etc., some creative show managers have taken these themes and provided more edgy focused programming, concentrating more on the consumer demographic and consumer desires. They have stepped things up a notch or two and have demonstrated that the reliable show themes do not have to be so ordinary. Researching properly and finding the better show managers who produce consumer events that have the passion element to them will produce a higher quality event. These exceptions are known to achieve a stature capable of producing more revenue, attracting out of town attendees and attaining an impressive level of popularity among local residents.
- There is another genre of events which has acquired the label of “Cons”. Their ability to attract huge attendance consistently while also exceeding event revenue and out of town visitor goals is noteworthy and remarkable. Creators of these events find hip or cutting edge trends and artfully exploit social media. They seek out venues in cities and regions which have the right mix of population density and a demographic quality which Greg Topalian, President of Left Field Media, described as a level of “geekiness”. Others have called the phenomenon “niche fandom”. For these “Cons” the attendance numbers and the rate of growth for these shows has not diminished.
- For convention center management and sales teams where the CVB controls long term bookings and as a matter of policy avoids and discourages consumer shows – take the time and re-educate the CVB on the changing nature and value of consumer shows
- Don’t just settle for the consumer show line up you have. Research the current show themes that now play at your convention centers and see what others are doing. Creative things are happening to old themes.
- Once a good prospect appears, insist on some date flexibility before closing. You don’t want to turn away association and convention business nor lose a consumer show because of fixed dates.
- Don’t get too cozy with consumer show managers and be mindful if others (board members, politicians, etc.) are. The NY Boat Show issue which occurred in 2013 is a good lesson learned. Fortunately that issue was settled with a reasonable compromise but not without controversy
- Study and stay abreast of what’s happening in the “Con” world. Talk with them, they are very approachable.
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