The Dollar’s Decline: The Cloud With a Silver Lining

HIL ANDERSON, SENIOR EDITOR
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The declining value of the dollar is turning into a capital opportunity for organizers of U.S. trade shows to draw new attendees from overseas and develop U.S. pavilions abroad.

Currencies from Canada to the European Union have gained significant buying power against the dollar in recent months, which makes the U.S. a more attractive destination for foreign businesses.  “This is an opportune time for U.S. trade shows to bring in international attendees because travel costs to the U.S. are a bargain, and U.S. products are “on sale,” said Denyse C. Selesnick, CEM, president of International Trade Information, Inc., a California firm that specializes in internationalizing domestic trade shows through exhibitor and visitor recruitment.  “And the nice thing about international attendees is that you can use their initial visit to turn some of them into future exhibitors,” she said.  “Because travel costs are lower, potential exhibiting companies can come to the U.S. to check out your show.  It’s a perfect future sales opportunity for when the dollar improves.”

Organizers Reach Out to Overseas Prospects

Advanstar Communications reported that attendance at its 2007 Licensing International show was up 19% from the previous year.  The company has hired a full-time director of international sales to leverage the momentum.

PACK EXPO broke all records when it was held October 15-17 in Las Vegas.  The show jumped 17% in exhibit space to 566,396 net square feet; the number of exhibiting companies rose 12%; and overall attendance was up 13%.  But the biennial show’s biggest increase percentage-wise was in international attendance, climbing 34% from 2,773 in 2005 to 3,718 in 2007.

The Specialty Equipment Manufacturers Association (SEMA) also reported a jump in international attendance at its Nov. 4-7 SEMA Show.  Peter MacGillivray, SEMA’s vice president of events and communications, said, “The exchange rate makes it a better bargain for international attendees to travel to a show and also for their costs while at the show, from hotel rooms to food and entertainment.  We took advantage of the opportunities created by the dollar’s imbalance and invested more in international marketing.  It paid off.”

MacGillivray encouraged his fellow organizers to take advantage of the rise and fall of currency values.  “The change is dramatic now, so it is something to keep in mind,” he advised.

The Best Time to Test Waters

“With today’s weak dollar, many foreign products are expensive by American standards.  But on the flip side, now is the time for new-to-market foreign companies to take advantage of their stronger currencies by attending U.S. trade shows because they can do so at a much lower cost than they could a year ago,” said Cherif Moujabber, who is president of Creative Expos & Conferences, and chairman of the International Committee of the Society of Independent Show Organizers (SISO).  “Trade shows offer international companies a fast track method of conducting market research,” he said.  “They can gauge the market potential for their products, size up the competition, refine their strategies and meet with potential distributors.”  Cherif has developed international programs for the Society of the Plastics Industry’s NPE International Plastics Showcase; The National Cable & Telecommunications Association’s Cable Show; and the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade’s Fancy Foods shows.

Taking Your Exhibitors Overseas

Stephen Sind, president and CEO of Global Event Strategies, based in Tucson, has 30+ years in the global exhibitions industry including senior level positions with Reed Exhibitions, Penton Exhibitions and the U.S. Commerce Department.  He agrees that attracting foreign buyers is the fastest and easiest way to add an international focus to your show.  He says it also provides added value for U.S. exhibitors.  But he urges show organizers to consider another way to capitalize on the dollar’s decline against foreign currencies.  “By exporting your event overseas through joint ventures or overseas pavilions, you will help your exhibitors reach even more potential buyers,” he said.  Travel and exhibiting expenses will be higher, but the payoff comes in the form of more favorable pricing of their products due to exchange rates.

Making a U.S. Visit as Painless as Possible

While lower prices may make traveling to the U.S. more attractive, it can still be a daunting process for international visitors that could find New York, Las Vegas or Chicago as bewildering as Shanghai, New Delhi or Dubai might be to an American.  Selesnick, who is active in markets in Asia, Europe and North and South America, recommended that organizers take extra steps to make their foreign guests welcome and their visit to the show as seamless as possible.  “If you take care of the international audience, you will build loyalty and they will come every year regardless of the dollar.  But you have to commit the resources because recruiting international buyers is more expensive than domestic.”

Selesnick recommended a number of steps that will make it easier to tap into an international audience of attendees and/or exhibitors:

◦  Forge alliances with overseas shows, symbiotic associations and publications to familiarize their audience with your show.

◦  Reach out to those exhibitors with experience in overseas markets.  They can give you insights on the various players and the local economic conditions and which countries hold the most potential for their products.

◦  Provide potential attendees with the right information, including everything from precise descriptions of the conference agenda and exhibits to the kind of weather they can expect.

◦  Work with in-country travel agents to help visitors get the very best airline and hotel rates.

◦  Designate a staff member or contract a professional to serve as the liaison with international attendees.  This person should be able to deal with other languages and accents.

◦  Offer an international exhibitor package that includes exhibit space, booth furnishings and drayage.  Most foreign exhibitors are not familiar with U.S. labor unions and work rules.

◦  Go the extra mile to make international visitors feel welcome and comfortable.  Don’t just hand them a program and a few drink tickets to an “international reception” upon arrival.  Suggest special visits to local attractions and help set up field trips to industry companies in the area.  Larger shows should have a specialized “tour” of the show floor, visiting exhibitors who wish to export.

Dollar Decline Doesn’t Mean Travel is ‘Cheap’

While the dollar may be back-pedaling, not all indicators point to a bargain travel season in 2008, so trade show organizers will still have to offer plenty of benefits.  Higher jet fuel prices and hotel rates will continue to inflate travel costs and force companies to keep a careful eye on expenses.  Specifically, the National Business Travel Association predicted that airfares would likely go up 6% to 10% in 2008 and hotel rates would increase 5% to 7%.

Big Shows Continue to be Viewed as Cost Effective

Christina Wilkes, who analyzes business meetings for American Express Business Travel, noted that companies still consider meetings as highly beneficial in terms of personal contact with customers and colleagues.  However, they are increasingly concluding that it might be more cost-effective to send employees to a few major trade shows rather than several small meetings.  “It generally takes as much time to procure a small event as it does a large one,” Wilkes said.

For trade show organizers, the situation is shaping up to be one where major U.S. shows will have an edge in courting international attendees, thereby providing additional benefits to their domestic exhibitors.  They may also use this as a marketing opportunity to attract potential international exhibitors or organize a U.S. pavilion or replicate their shows in other countries.

Selesnick summed it up: “This is a sterling opportunity for niche, medium-sized and larger trade shows.  Since many U.S. organizers are facing consolidation in their respective industries, and many are anticipating shrinking attendance due to the current economic challenges, this is the ideal way to turn a negative into a positive by helping their exhibitors find new customers, agents and distributors in other countries.”

Reach Denyse Selesnick at (818) 591-2255 or denyse@intltradeinfo.com; Peter MacGillivray at (909) 396-0289 or peterm@sema.org; Cherif Moujabber at (508) 660-7099 x 2 or cherif@creative-expos.com; Stephen Sind at (520) 751-2402 or ssind@event-strategy.com