McCormick Place Loses its Luster

Has all the grumbling about Chicago’s vaunted McCormick Place as America’s premier tradeshow venue finally reached critical mass?

For years, corporate exhibitors have groused about government-controlled, money-losing McCormick Place. Stories abound of exhibitors being forced to spend hundreds of dollars for services as mundane as plugging in a piece of machinery, or being charged $1,000 to hang a sign from the ceiling, because of onerous union rules governing “who does this” and “who can’t do that.” It’s been a constant refrain of complaining I’ve heard at every tradeshow I’ve attended at McCormick Place, dating back some 20 years.

Despite all of the criticism about McCormick Place’s high costs and lack of user-friendly service, it remains the largest convention complex in America, with over 2.5 million square feet of exhibit space. But attendance has been declining pretty dramatically, from ~3.0 million in 2001 to ~2.3 million in 2008. While the figures haven’t been released yet for 2009, it’s widely expected that show traffic will be reported as down another 20%.

As the current economic recession has put the most severe strains yet on the tradeshow business, it seems that a rebellion against McCormick Place is in now full swing. According to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, “a gradual drop-off in business … has turned into a rout as a string of high-profile shows have pulled out.” The deserters include a triennial plastics show (~75.000 attendees), as well as the Healthcare Information & Management Systems Society’s annual conference (~27,500 attendees).

But isn’t tradeshow attendance off in other convention centers as well? Well … yes. But clearly not as much. In truth, tradeshow attendance has been under pressure at a “macro” level ever since 9/11, and an important reason beyond the issue of terrorism is technological innovation and the ability for people to interact through video-conferencing and for companies to demo their equipment and services via the Internet and other forms of digital communication.

Tradeshows were once the only way to gather a community together, but now there are other options. One school of thought holds that large tradeshows are now less effective than small, targeted conferences that provide heightened ability for attendees to interact with one another on a more intimate basis. Some events no longer charge attendees … but they make sure to “vet” them carefully to ensure that the show sponsors who are underwriting the costs are reaching prospects with important degrees of influence or buying authority.

On top of these “macro” trends, the current economic downturn just makes McCormick Place look more and more like a loser when it comes to the tradeshow game. Compared to Chicago’s three most significant competing tradeshow locales – Atlanta, Las Vegas and Orlando – the cost of many items from electricians (union labor) to foodservice (greasy spoon-quality coffee at Starbucks® prices) to hotel accommodations (room fees and surtaxes that won’t quit) ranges two times to eight times higher in Chicago. And in today’s business climate when every cost is scrutinized closely, none of this looks very cost-effective to the corporate bean-counters.

True, Chicago is more centrally located for travel from both coasts: Who wants to take a five hour flight from New York to Las Vegas or from California to Orlando to attend a meeting?

[On the other hand, no one can honestly say that the weather in Chicago is preferable to sunny Florida or Nevada!]

So it would seem that Chicago’s worthy tradeshow competitors have achieved the upper hand now. I just returned from two national shows this past week – the International Air Conditioning, Heating & Refrigeration Expo and the International Poultry Expo. Where were they held? Orlando and Atlanta – the same cities which are attracting McCormick Place’s erstwhile customers.

2 Responses

  1. I’m not sure this response box is nearly large enough to adequately convey my own McCormick “horror” stories! I arrange approximately 25 shows a year and simply dread any show held at McCormick. ‘Overcharge…overcharge…overcharge, then charge some more’ must be their motto. You can’t sneeze in that hall without it costing an arm and a leg!

    For anyone who has done a show there, they know this is no exaggeration. My latest misery involved ice. Seems like a simple item to get — especially at a food show, right? Well, easy if you have a show budget the size of the national debt.

    First, they didn’t deliver the single ice bag (yes, only one) as planned, so I had to go in search of the service desk. There wasn’t one for this show. Now, after several inquiries and a few calls I landed with the right person. This person said I could not correct the issue over the phone; I had to walk over to the East Hall.

    OK, let’s add insult to injury….this wasn’t MY mistake in the first place. I was in the North Hall….so walking to the East Hall was quite a hike. Once there, I ordered one bag of ice to be delivered each morning for three days…simple enough. My charge for this seemingly simple request? $152!!! How does one justify charging $50 per bag for something that costs $3 at every gas station, grocery store and convenience store across the country? Well…it’s the delivery fee, of course! Of course, no one paid me $47 to walk all the way over to the other hall to correct their problem!

    It would have been cheaper if I had secured a cab, had him stop at a gas station, purchased ice and drove me back to McCormick!

    We won’t get into why they charged me 11 hours x 2 guys to hang a sign in 2002 that didn’t need to be assembled and didn’t have power….that’s another story.

    Let’s all go to Dallas, Orlando, Atlanta, or St. Louis for our shows. With the money we save, each company can afford to do at least one additional show each year … elsewhere.

  2. [...] McCormick Place in Chicago – the convention venue everyone loves to hate – the city has invested heavily in expansions and upgrades in recent years. In 2007, a new $900 [...]

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