LOS ANGELES — WSA COO Diane Stone understands the bind that many cash-strapped buyers and exhibitors are in this season. However, she remains adamant that participation at the footwear industry’s largest trade event is a must to survive the current economic downturn.
Stone said economic slumps always yield winners and losers, and the distinguishing factor is often a matter of attitude. “There is a little homily that adversity always breeds innovation, and there are always people who are unbelievably successful after horrible situations. The key element [to their success] is that they can because they think they can. If you think you can’t, you’re not going to.”
Still, there’s no denying that many businesses are facing hardships, so Stone has worked to make the upcoming WSA Show, on Feb. 12-14, more efficient and cost-effective. In addition to a number of free networking events and more-streamlined floor aisles, Stone has also negotiated cut-rate deals for show participants at hotels, restaurants, spas and shopping venues to ease the financial burden on exhibitors and attendees. [See sidebar for some of the available discounts.]
Here, Stone spoke with Footwear News about the challenges in the economy, the pressures on trade shows and why it is more important than ever for vendors and buyers to come together in search of fresh product and innovative ideas.
FN: How does the current recession compare with other downturns you’ve seen?
DS: We really are in uncharted waters. We’ve never seen anything quite like this before. It’s a perfect storm that has been going on for a while. Our economy — the world economy — is so built on credit. It didn’t used to be. People didn’t buy stuff if they couldn’t pay for it. What this has proven is that the credit market was a house of cards, and that’s pretty earth shaking. I don’t know the percentage of the American population that lives day-to-day on a series of maxed-out credit cards. I’m sure it’s staggering. [Now], all these people have lost their credit. I used to get 15 solicitations for credit cards every week. I don’t get them anymore, and if they’re not sending them to me, they’re not sending them to anybody, and that’s how people have been buying stuff.
FN: How do you see this playing out in the footwear industry?
DS: The people who used to come in to a store and buy four [pairs of shoes] are buying two, and the people who used to come in and buy two are buying one. When you look at that as a percent of your overall business, it’s devastating. Fifty percent of your business is just gone. Let’s face it, for most of us, if we never bought another article of clothing or pair of shoes for the rest of our lives, we’d neither go naked nor barefoot. [Consumers are] sitting back now and saying, “Do I really need this?” or, “I may not need five of them.” That could be a big change.
FN: Can anything good come from this difficult period?
DS: Pick any time [in history] and look at what emerged from horridness and what the successes were and who the winners were. You will find that they were extraordinary people who had great ideas and who had unbelievable energy and who weren’t sucked into those “woe is me” and “times are terrible” [mindsets]. There is a point when you have to yank yourself out of your own funk.
FN: Do you find yourself having to be the cheerleader for the industry, the eternal optimist?
DS: I absolutely believe that as a trade show organizer, we need to package and put into four walls and tie a bow around where opportunities exist. There are people who pooh-pooh trade shows when an economy is down because they say, “Well, I have to travel,” or, “I can’t be out of my store.” [But when] you unlock yourself from the four walls where you spend most of your time, it unlocks your mind. It allows you to open yourself to new thoughts. That’s what people need to do right now.
FN: All trade shows seem to be struggling with this. Are people reassessing the necessity for trade shows?
DS: No, I don’t think that’s the case, but everyone is looking to save money right now. A great deal of this is about the money. Everybody is going through this. One of the good things about WSA is that it’s been here forever. One of the down sides is that no matter how much you may feel that you’re communicating to people about the things that are new and different, they don’t see it. They see [the show] how they’ve always seen it.
FN: Do you view this focus on cost as a sea change, or will things eventually go back to normal?
DS: This isn’t anything that hasn’t happened before. The most challenging economic time, the most recent one prior to now, was post-Sept. 11. There was a huge downturn in every kind of business — and in the trade show business. I’m not saying this is the same exact thing, but trade shows are involved in what goes on in the economy, just like when we’ve experienced boom [cycles] and there have been booms in trade shows as well. Most trade shows are experiencing [challenging times]. Flat is the new up, and down is much more prevalent.
FN: So how do you sell people on the idea of trade shows right now?
DS: The biggest challenge for companies today is that, if you’re going to be successful at the end of this tunnel, you need resources, contacts and information. When you’re talking about brands and manufacturers, you need to be out and visible in the market, to be positioned for success going forward. I just got your Jan. 5 issue and [FN Editorial Director] Michael Atmore said exactly the same thing in his letter. This is all about who is going to be positioned to succeed [in the future]. Sitting in the corner and sucking your thumb doesn’t usually get you there. If you want to be in business tomorrow, you need to be at WSA now. There are more brands, more information, more people gathered in an efficient way than with anything else you can do.
FN: What are you doing to help ease cost pressures for show participants?
DS: In my time as a trade show organizer — 25 years — I’ve never done these things before. I truly wanted to see what I could do to help people save money. We’ve gotten all our official hotels to keep dropping their room rates. When they do, everyone who has already booked is re-rated. If you booked your room four months ago or three months ago and the rate has been dropped, you’ve been re-rated. We are making sure that you’re not penalized because you acted early. We have room rates as low as $34. The other thing we’ve done — and, again, I’ve never done this before and I’m excited about it — is we’re helping people with dining expenses. We’ve gone to restaurants and arranged deals for exhibitors and attendees, and for the most part, all you’re going to need is your badge when you show up. If coupons are available, we’ll have them at the show. And these are for really good places. It helps people save money on things that they either do anyway, or that they have to do, [such as entertaining].
FN: What will be new on the show floor?
DS: We’ve added a lot of creature comforts, such as a complimentary beverage service throughout the show. Opi is doing complimentary manicures in The Box. That’s really cool to be able to take a load off for 15 minutes and have a manicure. There are really comfortable and stylish lounges throughout the show with Internet kiosks. For the first time, Ed Hardy is sponsoring The Smart Car Lounge at Mandalay Bay. At the Venetian, Foot Petals is sponsoring foot messages and utilizing therapists from The Canyon Ranch. At the Collections at the Venetian, for the first time, there will be food service on each floor. There will probably be more [services] added between now and the show. We’ve also concentrated on complimentary social and networking events. A new thing we’re very excited about is a cocktail party that is open to everybody — exhibitors and attendees — in the lobbies of both the Mandalay Bay and the Sands at the close of the show on opening day. We’ve never done that before, and it creates an opportunity for everyone to come together and network and have complimentary hors d’oeuvres and drinks before they head out for the evening. The Glass Slipper party is in a terrific new venue at Sushi Samba at The Palazzo, which is a very cool place. There is also a cocktail party in The Box at Mandalay Bay at the close of the show on day two. This one is open to exhibitors in The Box and to all buyers.
FN: What are you expecting in terms of attendees?
DS: I’ve never had a crystal ball. Am I anticipating that the attendance will be down? Yeah. Any show organizer in any industry in today’s climate, if they’re being truthful, they’ll say that.
FN: What is your pitch for people who might still be on the fence about whether to come to the show?
DS: If there was ever a time that you needed to come to this event, this is the time. By saying that, I’m not being insensitive to people’s challenges, but what I absolutely know is that if you’re in business now and you’re planning on being in business tomorrow, you have to avail yourself to every resource there is. If you can only come for a day, then come for a day. If you can send one person where you used to send five, you have to come to where the industry gathers. If there are ways we can help you, we have a retail relations department and give us a call.