With the economy flailing, trade show traffic is expected to take a significant hit in 2009. As budgets get slashed across the board, both retailers and vendors are finding little room left for the traveling, lodging and entertaining costs involved with trade shows. Both sides are cutting back their presence at the shows with a few skipping many all together.

That was the general finding of a recent e-mail survey exploring tradeshow participation.


According to the respondents (some anonymous), national trade shows appear to be under particular pressure as retailers and exhibitors find it more difficult than ever to justify the expense.  Many responding retailers are only planning to attend regional shows to save money, or heading straight to vendors’ headquarters.

“As much as we would love to go to Vegas for one last snow sports party, we can see the majority of our vendors locally without dropping $2,000 for SIA,” said Courtney Wilson, snow and apparel buyer at Portland Boarding Company.

Even if they hit a show, a few retailers and reps said they will be staying for fewer days to save money on lodging. Many bigger stores and rep groups are planning to send fewer people. Said a president of a regional sporting goods chain, “We will look at every expense and determine if it is necessary.”  A CEO at a specialty retailer has initiated a “travel freeze” at his company until the economy picks up. An owner of an outdoor/fishing retailer flatly stated that he wouldn’t be attending any shows “unless subsidized by the manufacturer.”

Keith Baker, co-owner of The Trailhead in Buena Vista, CO, also doesn't plan to attend OR Winter Market or SIA. He said, “We can accomplish everything at vendor rep previews and WWSRA.”

One apparel product manager/buyer at a larger specialty store is banking on vendors coming to him. “We have been told to take the stance of, ‘We are large enough in the industry, manufacturers/vendors should come to us if they want us to purchase their products,” the buyer said.     

“I know that missing out on trade shows usually involves missing out on trends, the latest greatest shiny metal object or what color is the new black,” the buyer continued.  “But we have to look at flying, housing, taxiing and feeding anywhere between 5 to 20 people from our company, depending on the show. That's a lot of expenses that could be saved.”

Still, a few retailers and reps find the shows worth the investment.
“We currently attend four events each year, and have no plans to cut back,” said J.D. Denton, owner of Fleet Feet Sports in Davis, CA. “The meetings are an investment, and we always come home with information, ideas and strategies that benefit our business. The economy may have a cold, but that doesn't mean we have to stay in bed.”

Said Keith Reis, president at Sanitas Sales Group, “We plan on being an even greater presence at shows and at our retailers. It is in these times when working together is most important and that is best done in person.”

Much depends on the show. While HYI is exhibiting less this year, the outdoor footwear brand was looking to attend OR for the first time because it’s a “productive” show. “Their show is run well, and the traffic is serious about doing business, as well as enjoying the show,” said Jeff Thornton, HYI's line builder. “They are there for a purpose, not just there to shake hands.”

But Mountain Khakis is not exhibiting at OR Winter Market this time around.

“This was a tough decision for us internally, however, we figured we would see a lot more traffic at regional shows throughout the country,” said Martin Wilkinson, Mountain Khakis' sales manager. “So far, we are seeing a lot of this come true.  We are planning on attending the next OR.”

A few vendor reps also planned to scale back their presence because they expect fewer retailers to show up.
“If the accounts we service aren't attending a show and/or event, it is most likely that we won't attend either,” said an owner of a sales rep/agency focusing on camping/outdoor.

Although many are sending fewer people to the show and scaling back booth space, most vendors seem committed to keeping a presence at the shows.

Mike Wallenfels, president of Mountain Hardwear, also said that while they may be reducing the number of people normally sent, most retailers will likewise maintain some presence at the shows.  “Regional will become more important,” adds Wallenfels. “Multi-brand vendors will look to consolidate into single booth representations to manage staff and square footage. [But I see] no major changes in overall attendance. They are still critical!”

Ex Officio is also not altering its plans for trade show participation, although it is reviewing inventory and marketing plans.

“Tradeshows are a critical tool which we utilize to communicate key themes and opportunities with our accounts,” said Steve Bendzak, general manager at Ex Officio. “We visually display ideas and solutions at trade shows which result in dynamic conversations and the solidification of our plans for the up and coming season(s) with our dealers. As a result, we see shows as a primary environment to focus on the business challenges at hand and to re-work and finalize our plans to create and deliver solutions to the challenges we face together with our business partners.”

Said Bruce Monroe, East Coast brand development at CW-X/Wacoal Sports Science Corp, “As always I'll look for the best deals with the airlines and hotels, but for the most part will continue to attribute the shows as a necessary cost of doing business.”