Trade Show Planner: Leader Q&A

LOS ANGELES — Trade show operators are already preparing for a post-recession marketplace, though it could be smaller and more specialized. Those changes will, of course, alter the way trade events fit into the strategies of both manufacturers and buyers.

To find out what is driving those changes and how the industry will look in the aftermath of the current economic crisis, Footwear News went to the leaders of some of the largest trade events in the footwear industry, including Laura Conwell-O’Brien, show manager of The Atlanta Shoe Market; Chris DeMoulin, president of Magic International; Kenji Haroutunian, Outdoor Retailer show director; Elyse Kroll, chairwoman and founder of ENK International; Joe Moore, president and CEO of FFANY; and Andy Tompkins, ASR show director.

FN: What are the greatest challenges facing the footwear industry?

LCO: The closing of independent stores and the consolidation and closing of major department stores is hurting our industry tremendously. It’s a domino effect. Take the closing of the Macy’s buying offices in the Southeast: Not only did the buyers lose their jobs but the sales reps in the territory lost the Macy’s business. For most, that was the major portion of their business. There is nowhere they can go to make up that business.

KH: The challenges of production overseas and long lead times are going to be a particular problem in the coming year. Buyers don’t want to commit dollars to styles they don’t know will be popular. Coming up with products in a quicker cycle is going to be crucial. It’s going to be even more difficult for retailers to commit [to product] six or seven months out.

EK: Timing is also a challenge that the footwear industry faces. Stores are buying later and consumers are buying later.

JM: The greatest challenge for everybody is keeping their inventories under control and still staying creative and giving the customer a reason to buy. [Retailers have] to work harder at having the right merchandise at the right price. Price is definitely a challenge. In the good times, price became secondary. It may be [only] for the short term, but for the moment, it’s an issue.

AT: Footwear can be a very lucrative category for retailers, yet it does take a targeted strategy, as footwear has space demands to display properly on a retail sales floor and dealers must carry a large amount of SKUs to satisfy their customer base. As larger chains continue to carry footwear and see this as a growth vehicle, it will be more challenging for footwear manufacturers to engage specialty retail.

FN: How should trade shows change to address the new realities in the marketplace?

Just as retail stores must create vignettes for consumers, trade shows must offer this to buyers. We offer several “shows within a show” [at Magic] to keep the trends clear and precise. Trade shows must be nimble, quick and responsive.

LCO: Trade show managers need to know and understand their attendees and their exhibiting companies. They need to be cognizant of the location of the trade show, hotel rates, and the ease of getting in and out of the city where the trade show is taking place, as well as restaurant prices and the prices they are charging for exhibit space. Companies are looking for a return on their investment, and the days of large booths, parties, etc., are over.

KH: Trade shows need to be on the front edge of what is happening in the business. It should be an experience of the future, [where attendees] get a glimpse at technology and social media, creative ideas. It should be something that speaks to the future. A national trade show can be a reflection of the industry it serves, but at the same time, there is a responsibility to give a look at what’s ahead, not just product and brands, but to deliver concepts and ideas and realities.

EK: We need to be good watchers and keep close tabs on what’s going on in the marketplace. The marketplace will tell us [what it needs], and we’re listening. We’re going to play a much more active role in [determining] what people want and what they need … and we’re going to try to give them both.

JM: Trade shows are a little bit smaller, and people have to be more creative and make sure your timing is right. And trade show operators have to make sure their shows are more affordable for exhibitors. It’s not as easy as it sounds because of fixed costs.

AT: The onus will be on trade show producers to deliver a quality buying audience while reducing overall costs for exhibitors. [We’ve] responded to the cost challenge by lowering our space rates by 25 percent and offering a wide variety of exhibit programs that lower setup and tear-down costs and allow exhibitors to focus on product and sales.

FN: How will the industry look after the recession ends?

CD: The players who have created the most clear brands will survive and take root. Clarity is key. The brands left standing will be strong and well positioned to hit big.

LCO: I’ve been the executive director for The Atlanta Shoe Market for 27 years. I’ve seen the industry go through other rough times, but this is definitely the worst I’ve seen it. I believe there will always be business; however, the business as we know it will be different: fewer trade shows, fewer companies, but we will be here. Everyone needs shoes. If gas prices keep rising, sales reps will find it impossible to travel to the independent stores, thus making the trade shows that survive more important to the retailers.

KH: The outdoor industry is amazingly resilient. We actually prosper in times of recessions. This is the third recession I’ve been through, and people in recession times go back to the land and simplify their lives. When you staycation, you’re going to go hiking in your local area, camping, trail running, and you’re going to need footwear for it. That’s what we see every time, and we’re seeing it again this time.

EK: It will be leaner, stronger, and we’ll be dealing with the winners. It’s the beginning of a new cycle, and we’ll be smarter.

JM: The footwear industry is very resilient. These tough times are going to generate more creativity. Product is going to improve. It will bring new brands into the industry. There is a demand for new things when times are tough. Will people go out of business? Yes, but the better operators will get more market share. I’m not worried about the industry as a whole.

AT: The action-sports market has many great years ahead. When sales begin to pick up again, we will see a smaller, yet more powerful retail base, and footwear will continue to be a leading category that drives sales.

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