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.