Several factors contribute to the dip in attendance at recent trade shows.

This time of year, when I'm on a seemingly nonstop convention road trip, a lot of the people I see at trade shows ask me what I'm hearing about the health of the sheet metal industry in general or trade shows in particular.

As I've written before, trade show attendance is a very sensitive subject, so much so that some groups avoid or flat-out refuse to release their figures. A good number attempt to qualify them by saying the people now attending trade shows are the real "buyers" exhibitors want to reach.

Of course, when attendance is record-breaking, no one says they feel low-level employees, given a free trip by their bosses, padded the figures.

The controversy over trade-show traffic is not limited to the HVAC industry, as a recent study by the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., think tank, shows.

The study, which received considerable coverage in the mainstream press, criticizes city leaders who promote convention centers as economic engines, saying they seldom live up to the hype. According to the institute, convention business has been sluggish in most cities since the mid-1990s, predating the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the last recession.

Attendance at the nation's 200 largest trade shows is stuck at 1993 levels, the study says, limiting such events' economic benefits.

An ‘arms race'

At the same time, Brookings says many cities and states are in a convention "arms race," seeking to expand existing facilities to attract shows. In the last 10 years, the nation's convention space has increased by 50 percent, largely the result of $2.4 billion a year in public money spent on such projects.

However, the authors note, competition forces many cities to offer show organizers substantial discounts to attract conventions, and many centers operate at a loss as a result.

The study is kinder to convention centers in Las Vegas and Orlando, Fla., the sites of several sheet metal-related shows this year: last month's AHR Expo and the International Roofing Expo were both held at Orlando's Orange County Convention Center, and the National Air Duct Cleaners Association's annual convention is this month at the Sands Expo Center in Las Vegas. The study says both locales have performed reasonably well while the convention industry has faltered, although the authors predict little to no attendance growth in either city for the near future.

What does all this mean for the HVAC and sheet metal industries? I think they'll fare reasonably well. Most of the major trade shows Snips' attends - Metalcon, Fabtech, the AHR Expo, among others - are well established, meaning they have a good attendance base. All have also suffered the last few years from a drop in convention-goers, although most seem to be rebounding. These shows are steady performers, meaning they generally don't have the huge attendance of shows that promote "flashier" industries, like telecommunications, but they don't suffer from huge fallout when business goes south, either. And that's good news.

Letters - Warming customers' hearts

I read with interest your recent column on promoting your business with greeting cards (Editor's Page, January). One other holiday, often forgotten by folks in our industry, is Valentine's Day. The timing of this holiday couldn't be better, as any contractor can use a mailing message like "We love our customers," and combine the extraordinary holiday greeting with seasonal reminders (spring cleaning, getting ready for air-conditioning season, etc). It is a great way to be noticed and remembered away from the flood of holiday mail.

Renee K. Chesler, Director

CertainTeed Corp., mechanical insulation division

Gahanna, Ohio