The Great Divide

Anyone who has worked in the trade show or conference industry learns early on that there is a great divide between two types of show organizations: association and for-profit.

I have worked in both. I began my career in 1998 with one of the most venerable of the independent show organizers, Miller Freeman. I have worked for CMP Media, Advanstar and Cygnus on the for-profit side.

On the non-profit side, I have worked for the Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM) on its CONEXPO-CON/AGG show, and now our group is part of American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), another non-profit.

Since our IDEAg Group was purchased by AFBF in August, I have spent a lot of time thinking about the differences and misconceptions among those who work for association-based shows and for-profit shows.

Profits and Politics

For-profit shows are based in the world of commerce. The fundamental reason for their existence is to bring buyers and sellers together and, while they may pay lip service to their attendee community, there is no doubt that the people buying the squares of cement and paying for the sponsorships are the ones calling the shots.

With most association shows, the attendees are members, and the event caters to their concerns. The exhibitor is important but unlike the for-profit show, their desires are balanced by the attendees’ concerns and, in many cases, the people who call the shots are the members.

There are exceptions. For example, CONEXPO-CON/AGG is owned by the Association of Equipment Manufacturers, so that show is owned by its exhibitors. However, for the most part, at association shows, where the attendee is the guest or member, there is a different dynamic.

As a result, association show managers make decisions that a for-profit show manager would not. For example, a few years ago a European food show chose to not allow companies selling genetically modified foods to exhibit because of the organization’s politics.

Who Is the Customer?

This tension between attendees and exhibitors that is not part of most for-profit shows exposes another difference between the show types with a simple question: Who is the customer?

For many association shows, the customer is the attendee. This reality comes out in many ways. For-profit show advisory boards usually are made up of exhibitors and sponsors. For associations they are mixed affairs with attendee members as well, and many times they are organized as management committees with real power. No for-profit show has an advisory board with real decision-making power, but that is not the case with association shows. As a result, there is always tension between commerce and education or the business of the association.

There are some dynamic environments for commerce at association shows (Just look at International CES or the National Restaurant Show.) but keep in mind that the needs of the association are central to association shows while commerce is only a part of those events.

Advantages and Disadvantages

I have attended many a SISO meeting where one of the leading topics of discussion is how to compete with association shows. Many for-profit organizers view association shows as almost having an unfair advantage.

This may be the case, but there are always trade-offs in our business. There are advantages and disadvantages to both, and they provide challenges to show managers.

For-profit shows are nimble businesses that can move quickly to deal with market forces. The opportunities for launches and quick growth are evident when working for an independent show. The customer’s loyalty is based fundamentally in commerce, so when the industry shrinks or has trouble, that is the only consideration.

For non-profit shows, nimbleness is not normally the reality. Typically, association shows are slower to act and slower to take advantage of dynamic change. Nimbleness is not as much of a value in association shows, but loyalty is.

Because attendees and sometimes exhibitors view these as “their shows,” they tend to retain themselves well over time. All one has to do is look at the dearth of for-profit medical and dental tradeshows to see how important loyalty is to these shows.

If, like me, you are entrepreneurial, working for an association show can be a challenge because risk and growth is not the highest value. It does not mean that you cannot be successful—because I have been—but understand the differences and prepare for them. If you are the kind of executive who relishes contact and relationships and is willing to forego the thrill of launches and risk, an association show can be a powerful place to work.

In the end, there really is no overarching advantage to one model or the other, but they are different entities and need to be understood as such.

Raymond L Bianchi is the senior director of expositions and events for the IDEAg group of the American Farm Bureau Federation, the largest agricultural association in the United States. He manages the team that produces five of the largest agricultural trade shows and conferences in America with more than 100,000 total attendees and 1,200 exhibitors and sponsors. 

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