When you're writing about trade shows, attendance can be a sore subject. Some groups, usually those with small shows, decline to give attendance figures or hem and haw around them.

Others give them - reluctantly - but qualify the figures with an explanation, usually if the numbers were down from the previous year. Others are straightforward, readily giving the information.

The official numbers were easy to get for this year's International Air-Conditioning Heating Refrigeration Exposition in Anaheim, Calif.: 22,476 visitors and 16,143 exhibitor personnel.

The 38,619 total made the Jan. 26-28 event the best-attended West Coast AHR Expo ever, according to the International Exposition Co., which manages the annual show.

"The majority of exhibitors we spoke to were pleased with their presence at the show and were able to make contacts that would lead to a positive start for their new year," Clay Stevens, exposition company president, said in a statement.

The distinction as the best-attended West Coast AHR Expo is noteworthy, because a few of the exhibitors I talked to were grumbling that the show wasn't as big or as busy as last year's in Chicago. While that's certainly true - the show attracted 20,000 less people this year - it's probably not a far comparison. Chicago is such a successful venue for the AHR Expo that last year organizers announced they would bring the show back to McCormick Place every three years.

Every time the AHR Expo hits the Windy City, it fills both halls of the city's massive convention center and hotel rooms for miles. Visitor and exhibitor expectations are high and they're usually met.

But what is it that makes the Chicago show so alluring that other expos seem pale in comparison? I love visiting Chicago, but why does a January event in a city famous for its cold and snowy winters outdraw a warm and sunny locale such as Southern California?

‘Decision makers'

Along with the sliding economy, many trade shows have seen their attendance tumble the last few years. If an overall industry is making less money, fewer companies will probably want to take the time - or spend the money - to send staff to a faraway show. When you add in the cost of meals, hotel rooms and time away from the business, it can get expensive to attend, let alone exhibit. Many exhibitors shell out tens of thousands of dollars for a major presence at shows such as the AHR Expo.

At a time like this when numbers are down for many events, a phrase you hear often from organizers and some exhibitors is "quality, not quantity" when referring to visitors. Usually, they mean that although fewer people attend, those who do are more likely to be buyers and decision makers, instead of just shop employees who are given a free trip by their bosses. This can make a show with so-so attendance a blockbuster for exhibitors, if these "decision makers" are in a buying mood.

There must be something to the "quality, not quantity" theory, because at many shows, the majority of exhibitors immediately sign up to return the following year.

Readers, what do you say? Are you still attending trade shows? Why or why not? What factors into your decision? Write me at BNP Media, SNIPS magazine, 2401 W. Big Beaver Road, Suite 700, Troy, MI 48084. You can also send me at e-mail at mcconnellm@bnpmedia.com. Please include your name, address and a way to get in touch with you. Responses may be published in a future issue of SNIPS.