Tradeshow Woes Mirror Industry Changes – Other Opportunities Arise

You have to explore all options to get your art to market. The more ways you can grow new distribution channels and master them, the better off you will be. It’s not harder, just different and that may make it seem harder.

Not all that many years ago, the Decor Expo Atlanta Show once placed in the Tradeshow 100 rankings. That meant according to statistics compiled by Tradeshow magazine it, at the time, was one of the largest 100 tradeshows in the U.S. Given there are thousands, if not tens of thousands, of annual tradeshows, this was a remarkable chest thumping achievement for the show, the industry and the show organizers.

Unfortunately, no sooner than the show claimed its vaunted spot as force in the tradeshow world, it peaked and began a rather quick downward spiral. In the course of a few years the show has fallen to the ranks of mediocre rankings in size and importance. Like tradeshows in many other industries, it continues to shrink as it commands less importance.

Published results show a slide in exhibitor participation

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A recent tally of exhibiting companies on the Decor Expo Web site listed about 266 exhibitors. Surely, the show will grow larger in coming weeks, but given the time it takes to ship one can be certain many potential larger exhibitors will be conspicous by their absence and the show's numbers won't change dramatically. If the numbers do grow, it's most likely to be with smaller less important exhibitors that don't have th pulling power for buyers largers exhibitors have. Not unlike a suburban mall; it is the anchor tenants that drive the traffic.

An analysis reveals a rough estimate is 10 – 12% of the companies listed are art related as opposed to framing or service related. In other words, it's become a framing show with a small art component. This is a sad, it not predictable turn of events. Decor Expo Atlanta's troubles and decline mirror the difficulties of being an art publisher over the past half-decade. The number of well-known publishers missing from the posted list is almost hard to believe. Especially when only a few short years ago this show was a must on any substantial art publisher's schedule. Show organizers have gone from having to referee a seriously competitive dog fight for premier positions to resorting to deals unheard of in year's past to try and keep the exhibitor base from eroding.

As times change, once "must do" shows become expendable

One can study the decline in the industry's trade ad pages and shuttering of smaller trade shows and come to the same conclusion. Facts are the bloom is off the rose for the way the businesses marketed themselves in the past. It used to be an acceptable ROI (Return on Investment) within a given range was highly likely as the payoff for exhibiting at certain tradeshows. This is no longer the case. Or more accurately, the risk/reward on the investment is skewed too far to the risk given the level of investment for many companies to participate. It's not they don't want to, more that they fear losing money if they do.  When times are tough, belts get tightened and tradeshows that were once absolutes on the marketing plan become expendable budget items.

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You can put any number of things to blame for this outcome. The 9/11 attacks set off a chain of events that began the downward trends shows like Decor Expo are experiencing now. Additionally, the cost of travel to the shows, the inconvenience in travelling to shows, the cost of shipping to shows, the rise of Internet based business, the influx of cheap foreign manufacturing, and the growth of big box stores have all hurt the shows. The development and proliferation of print-on-demand technologies in conjunction with online marketing have also changed distribution channel dynamics. The mortgage and real estate bubble bursting and resultant economic woes in the housing market also add to the problem.

Opportunities still exist

The shows and magazines that support them have not gone out business. Readers and attendees still rely on them to learn about new products, services and companies. The upside of thinned ranks is you have more time and visibilty when you advertise or exhbit. The caveat is you need to have something exciting and not ordinary. Showing up with less than your best, or something too similar to existing images is not wise. You don't have to be off the radar wild, but having a unique look and take will be an enormous help to your efforts.

I have written here before that it is not the economy that is the problem for artists and publishers seeking to grow their businesses. And, I've also posted there are hopeful signs and reason for optimism for art publishers. Consumers still want art on the walls. They are more willing to buy it in different places than before. They are also becoming more adventurous with what they put on their walls, that includes art or photos they make themselves and have printed online at shops like Photo Canvas Direct.

So what does it all mean? You can't reliably rely on tradeshows like Decor Atlanta to grow your business as in the past. The Atlanta show is not moribund, but it is far from providing the lively marketing action it once did. You can still go and may prosper by doing so. As Woody Allen once said, "90% of success is showing up."

Explore and create new ways to get to market

You have to explore all options to get your art to market. The more ways you can grow new distribution channels and master them, the better off you will be. It's not harder, just different and that may make it seem harder. Keep in mind merely showing up with little on the ball amidst 2,000 booths in the vast Georgia World Congress Center when the show was at its largest was never an easy sure-fire road to success either.

Be constantly vigilant for opportunity. It is around you in ways you may not be thinking of now.

  • Think about the hospitality market and how you might tap it.
  • Get well known in your community, region or nation for being an expert on something. All the better if it is art related. If you become the "Go to" person, doors will open for you.
  • Create your own opportunities. Put on your own shows. Get out of your comfort level and do some things you never thought you would.
  • Find other artists locally or regionally with similar tastes in marketing and work together with them.
  • Study other artists, not necessarily visual artists, and learn what unique things they are doing to create sales and interest in them and their work.
  • Feast on as much viable marketing information as possible. It is widely and freely available at blogs like this one.

Don't let whatever you are doing stop being fun. You are in a creative business. You are a creative person. Let that creativity flow into your marketing. There is really never a time to be complacent, but now more than ever, you need to bring your "A" game to your marketing. Do it cheefully with zest. You might be surprised how well people respond to you doing so.

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Barney Davey

I help artists and photographers find buyers, sell more art and operate profitably.

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