2015 SISO CEO Summit: What’s Keeping For-profit Trade Show CEOS Up at Night?

April 21, 2015

At the 2015 Society of Independent Show Organizers’ 25th anniversary meeting, held April 13-16 at The Sanctuary on Kiawah, Island, S.C., the sessions tackled several heady subjects, including what keeps the CEOs of these for-profit trade show companies up at night?

That question was the part of the first session that kicked off the annual event, which was led by Tarsus Group Managing Director Douglas Emslie and included Britton Jones, president and CEO of Business Journals, Inc.; Sally Shankland, CEO of UBM Americas; and Russell Wilcox, CEO of Clarion Group.

In the room filled with not only the CEOs, but also industry suppliers, association leaders and guests, the discussion centered on topics such as increased industry competition in the fashion sector, how to market to attendees more effectively and the ever-increasing price private equity was paying for companies.

“Maintaining an edge is so critical in the fashion industry,” Jones said. “Our space is incredibly competitive. It keeps you on your toes, and that’s a good thing.”

Wilcox said one of the things that kept him up at night was that his company was underrepresented in the U.S., “so that is an opportunity.” He added that in the “age of digital bombardment” face to face stands out even more.

Shankland said a key goal at UBM Americas was to “create more value based on information provided to have more targeted marketing.” In other words, collect and use meaningful data that can help cater more uniquely to an attendee’s needs.

She added that something that kept her awake was, “I think there is a lack of gender, race and age diversity in our industry.”

Talk of high multiples that have recently been paid (in the double digits) for trade show companies sparked a lively discussion in the room. Some said the prices had gotten too high, and there would be ‘some casualties’ in the next few years as a result.

With Clarion recently being bought by PE firm Providence Equity, Wilcox added, “If you find the right partners, it should be a shared, long-term marriage to build value in the products.”

Other sessions the first day included “Citywides and Spinoffs: How do they happen, why, what keeps them interesting and how do you attract new attendance?” that was led by Mark Sullivan, president of Formula 4 Media, and focused on how his company successfully spun off their popular annual event into a ‘sister’ event.

Also, IMEX CEO Carina Bauer gave a detailed presentation on how hosted buyer programs, such as IMEX Frankfurt, work and how their use of technology and creativity has improved the effectiveness of the show for both buyers and exhibitors

The sessions broke for the SISO Annual Business Lunch during which it was unveiled by SISO Chair Charlie McCurdy that David Audrain, CEO of Exposition Development Company (ExpoDevCo), would be SISO’s new executive director, replacing Lew Shomer, who will be stepping down at the end of the year.

“I’ve been humbled … I’ve been very lucky these last couple of years to have the support of SISO,” Audrain said.

He added, “… From an industry perspective, SISO provides the very best gathering for leadership to have networking and business opportunities.”

Also during the lunch, Robert Harar, chairman of National Trade Productions, was awarded the Robert L. Krakoff Leadership Award.

“It is awarded to an individual who has made outstanding contributions to the face-to-face industry over the years,” said UBM/Advanstar’s Tony Calanca.

McCurdy gave a ‘state of the industry’ on SISO and said that now there were 177 member organizations, “Almost double the number when (Shomer) and his group started seven years ago.” He added that the finances also were very sound.

Shomer said more than 250 delegates, sponsors and guests attended this year’s event.

“We hope that our attendees walked away with insights into the industry’s future, the opportunities and pitfalls of global expansion and best of all, they created new networks and had a lot of fun,” he added.

Afternoon sessions focused on “Beyond the Booth: What are organizers doing to beef up their product offerings and making their exhibitors feel like part of a community?” during which show organizers such as Al Kikovitz, president and CEO, Cottage Life Media, talked about his company focusing on not just creating a show, but an entire brand like owning its own TV channel to selling “Cottage” apparel through their website.

The last session of the first full day was provocatively titled “Point –Counterpoint: Is the industry as we know it OVER? Or are we just on the brink of greater OPPORTUNITY?”, definitely created another stir in the room, with panelist Francis Friedman, president, Time and Place Strategies, saying, “We are in a 10-year foot race with exhibitors … who is going to control the customer experience?”

Denzil Rankine, executive chairman, AMR International, added, “The whole industry has been on the drug of space sales,” adding that the real challenge is "putting marketing and data analytics at the heart of the organization."

Friedman also said, “We are no longer in the exhibitor business, we are in the attendee business … with no attendees, there are no shows. We need to meet attendee’s needs and desires.”

In the audience, Britton Jones added, “We need to offer them something they aren’t already offered in real life.”

Sands Expo’s Eric Bello didn’t agree with the panelists that the industry as we know it is over, adding, “It is the most effective way to see the most exhibitors at one place at one time.”

After a night of networking at an outside BBQ at Mingo Point, followed by scotch and cigars back at the resort, the next day kicked off bright and early with a session led by Steve Monnington, managing director, Mayfield Media Strategies, on global mergers and acquisitions.

Leading the M&A pack the past few years were the U.S. and the U.K., but, especially with all of the activity in China, Monnington said of the country that it was “one of the interesting places … that is not really pulling its weight.”

One of the global markets he focused on was Turkey, which has had 16 joint venture deals between international investors and local organizations in the past five years. “Most businesses have performed well,” he added.

As to what markets are still left to invest in, Monnington said second-tier cities in China, Indonesia, Southeast Asia and Mexico, among others, were all of interest.

Another session on the final day was “Game Changing … Dynamic models that deliver knock out attendance” with David Kieselstein, CEO, Penton; Joe Loggia, CEO, UBM / Advanstar; Mike Rusbridge, executive chairman, Reed Exhibitions as panelists and Charles McCurdy, board of directors, 5Net4 Productions moderating.

“Today's exhibitors want both quantity and quality. We need to be able to deliver new potential customers, as well as the buying power and industry influencers,” Loggia said.

To get people who are considered ‘influencers’ to Advanstar shows, there are teams at the company that specifically work on scoring attendees based on things such as their titles and their social media and press presence.

Other tactics utilized by the panel included a behavioral suite of tools that would create personalized marketing messages for attendees and employing data scientists who are experts in programs such as Salesforce to create custom campaigns based on specific data.

The last session of the summit featured a video of two Las Vegas-based comedians visiting five shows and taking a comedic, yet informative look, on what the exhibitors really thought of their experiences moving in, moving out, booth location and paying for all of those extras. 

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