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 Trade Shows Are Rebounding; The Orange County Convention Center Setting New Records for Attendance During Early 2004
By Jerry W. Jackson, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News 

Mar. 22, 2004 - Emerson Schwartzkopf travels to nine or 10 trade shows a year and is visiting Orlando for a show this week , just as he has every year for more than a decade. 

About 26,000 people are expected to attend Coverings, an exhibition for the carpet, stone, tile and floor-covering industry, and Schwartzkopf will have a booth at the Orange County Convention Center. 

As editor of Stone Business magazine, he and other staffers will hand out copies and meet story sources and future advertisers. Why fly from California to Orlando and fight the travel-hassle factor when the Internet, fax and phone work fine? 

"It comes down to person-to-person contact," Schwartzkopf said. "I just don't think that the idea of that benefit has gone away. You may not make the sale right there, but the contact that may lead to the sale down the road." 

Based on what he has seen in the past year, Schwartzkopf said, trade shows are rebounding. And both national and local numbers seem to bear out the comeback, as business travel in general has improved. 

The Orange County Convention Center set a record for attendance in January; by the end of this month, it's expected to shatter the previous first-quarter record, set in 1998. If a handful of remaining shows go as well as expected, the center in south Orlando will record more than 480,000 attendees and 70 events during the three-month period. That would surpass the previous quarterly record of 335,873 attendees for 61 events in the first quarter of 1998. 

"We knew we would be busy, but we didn't know it would be this busy," said Tom Ackert, the convention center's executive director. "I think the industry is in a sustained recovery." 

The convention center's record attendance is partly the result of an expansion completed last fall. It doubled the center's exhibit space to about 2.1 million square feet. The center's previous quarterly record also came shortly after an expansion, when the center completed a 200,000-square-foot addition and remodeling. But centers throughout the country have seen recent signs of strength as well, with or without expansions. 

During the fourth quarter of 2003, for example, professional attendance at trade shows nationwide rose 7.8 percent from the same period a year earlier, according to survey estimates by Tradeshow Week magazine. The number of exhibiting companies rose nearly 3 percent, and the net square footage of the shows rose 1.3 percent. 

"Across the board, we're seeing more interest," said Tamara Christian, president of National Trade Productions, an Alexandria, Va.-based company that puts on about 20 shows a year, including the Coverings show in Orlando. 

But just as many vacation travelers have been booking their trips at the last minute, more trade-show exhibitors are signing on later than they did in the past. 

"We just sold five booths yesterday" for Coverings, Christian said last week . 

"We expect to be selling booths right up to the last minute." 

The show, which starts Tuesday in the new North-South wing of the Orlando center, is not open to the public. It runs through Friday. 

Christian said she thinks the recovery in the trade-show industry is sustainable "barring any unforeseen circumstances," such as terrorist attacks. 

The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., hit the industry hard. Schwartzkopf recalled attending a big electronics trade show in San Francisco right after 9-11; "People were literally tossing Nerf footballs around" he said, because the hall was so empty. 

Professional attendance at trade shows fell about 8 percent in 2001, according to Tradeshow Week estimates, and about 2 percent in 2002 before rising 3.6 percent in 2003. The number of exhibitors and the square-footage leased also were down in 2001 and 2002 before stabilizing last year. 

The estimated attendance for all events at the Orange County Convention Center dipped below 900,000 in 2001 -- its lowest level since 1995 -- but rebounded to 1 million in 2002 and 1.15 million last year. 

In terms of "occupied-square-foot days," a good measure of health for convention centers because it takes into account both gross exhibit space and event days, including move-in and move-out days, Orange County saw a relatively modest dip in fiscal 2001. 

Occupied-square-foot days slipped to 252.9 million in fiscal 2001 from 255 million in 2000. The measure rebounded to 265 million in 2002, remained flat in 2003 and is projected to leap to 342 million in fiscal 2004 based on increased bookings. 

While occupancy is important because it helps pay the bills at the convention center, attendance is more important because that translates into hotel rooms filled and money spent in the community, said Kathleen Canning, the center's deputy director. 

The center's expansion helps smooth out the dips in attendance, she said, because one show can be moving in or out while other shows are in progress. Last week, for example, the massive Coverings show was moving into the new North-South Building while, across International Drive in the West Building, two other shows were under way -- the Advance Auto Parts vendor show with 4,000 attendees, and the National Renaissance Learning conference with 7,000 attendees. 

One way trade shows have managed to squeak through the weak post-9-11 period is through "co-locating" events -- that is, holding concurrent events in the same center or hotel to save costs, said Douglas Ducate, president and chief executive officer of the Center for Exhibition Industry Research in Chicago. 

The recent World of Concrete, for example, a huge trade show held in Orlando in February, also included the smaller World of Masonry trade show. The smaller event, which attracts similar participants, has piggybacked on the larger show since 2001. 

Dire predictions that the trade-show industry would suffer from competition from teleconferencing and the Internet seem to have been a bit premature, said Christian, with National Trade Productions. The "technology effect" probably will take several decades to be fully realized, she said, once "kids who are raised completely on computers" become the primary demographic group. 

Even then, Christian said, the ability to "see and touch a product, and meet people in person" will always have benefits that technology can never replace. 

The Coverings trade show, for example, allows professionals such as architects, designers, builders, retailers, distributors and others to get a close-up look at the latest equipment, products and services for the flooring business and related industries. It requires about 8 million pounds of supplies and products to be hauled in from throughout the nation as well as from a number of foreign countries such as Italy, a major supplier of granite and tile. 

Schwartzkopf, who has been attending various shows in Orlando every year since 1989, said the fun side of such shows is another factor that keeps people coming back year after year. 

"You try to take a day to relax," said Schwartzkopf, who ventures as far away as Cocoa Beach and Tampa's Ybor City when he visits Orlando for a convention. While many trade-show attendees play golf or visit theme parks, Schwartzkopf said, he relaxes poolside and even enjoys strolling along International Drive. 

"The entertainment aspect is an important part, and Orlando and Las Vegas are prime areas [for trade shows] because there's so much to do," he said. "It's more than a subliminal thing -- it's a big selling point." 

-----To see more of The Orlando Sentinel -- including its homes, jobs, cars and other classified listings -- or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to 

(c) 2004. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News. 


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