Faced with heightened competition and a dramatically changing industry, trade show operators are moving fast to adapt to the new landscape. For some, this means sweeping overhauls of their formats, with significant shifts in dates and a greater emphasis on providing compelling content and market and trend information.
Organizers also are investing heavily in interactive digital platforms that keep brands and buyers connected year-round. From virtual showrooms to new product showcases, these online tools allow trade shows to live on longer.
Here, Leslie Gallin, VP of footwear for Advanstar Global; Kenji Haroutunian, VP and show director of Outdoor Retailer; Joe Moore, president and CEO of FFANY; Kirstin Deutelmoser, director of GDS; Fabio Aromatici, GM of The Micam; and Laura Conwell-O’Brien, executive director of The Atlanta Shoe Market, weigh in on the changing role of trade shows and the industry’s outlook for the year ahead.
What are you hearing from attendees regarding the economy and business in 2014?
FA: Even in Europe, with all the economic difficulties, there is a general feeling that things are going to get better in the coming season. It won’t be as strong as in the U.S., but there is a sense the retail market is going to pick up, especially in the U.K., Germany and France. Business will remain a little slower for southern countries, such as Italy, Spain and Portugal.
LCO: We just held a show in mid-December and, while the mood was cautious, retailers were still buying. Everyone is optimistic.
JM: Despite the lack of cooperation in the U.S. Congress, the stock market remains at an all-time high. People are feeling positive about spending.
LG: I am hearing that business is good right now. Footwear continues to be a hot category. We’ll have a strong spring season at retail.
KD: The industry is facing many tough challenges, among them the economic situation in southern Europe, the shortage of leather and the lack of new distribution channels. In addition, there are more and more new [competitors] in the footwear market, [making it] harder to be successful today.
KH: In outdoor overall, things have been counter-trend for some time. We’ve had something like 15 consecutive months of growth, despite the economy. The core snow sports industry has had a tougher time, with two pretty disastrous years in a row. But with the decent start to the season and the snow so far, people are fairly optimistic.
What are you doing to keep your shows fresh?
LG: I can’t reveal specifics, but we’re enhancing the wayfinding of our show to make it easier to navigate. We’re also doing an exciting partnership with [footwear design school] Pensole where students will create product for brands such as Skechers, Steve Madden and others. It’s a great way for companies to find new talent.
KD: While order writing was a big [focus] in the past, trade fairs are much more information-based now. Therefore, in July we will launch a completely new concept for GDS. This means much earlier dates and a more international direction. GDS will now focus primarily on brand communication, information and staging, allowing buyers to obtain an early overview of the market so they start the order cycle with all the necessary information.
FA: We will unveil major changes to Micam this summer, including earlier dates, [Aug. 31-Sept. 3]. To move Micam up by two-and-a-half weeks is a big change for Italy, which is not known for being fully operational at the end of August. But Italy exports 84 percent of its turnover, so we need to think more internationally, and that’s why we decided to do this. Obviously, many small companies, especially Italian ones, are concerned about this change, but it’s right for the nature of Micam.
KH: We’re introducing a centralized New Product Zone, where buyers can discover and learn about all the new products launching at the show. We’ll present them in a digital format, using some new interactive technologies. Our show is very large, so this allows buyers to easily see what’s new by specific category, such as footwear.
JM: One of our biggest new initiatives is our online wholesale marketplace, FFANY 365, which will go live on Jan. 15. By the end of 2014, we expect to have the majority of FFANY members signed up and fully operational on the site.
LCO: We will debut a new look at our February show, with all booths constructed in white fabric with new shelving.
How are you integrating social media and digital technology into your operations?
LG: We’re working with Marie Claire magazine, which will be spearheading some exciting social media initiatives for us. We also continue to expand our digital platform, Shop the Floor, which allows exhibitors to have a 24/7 showroom online. It’s especially great for smaller companies that don’t have the funds to hire high-tech people to build their websites.
JM: Prior to the show, we feature exhibitor spotlights on all FFANY social media. We also spotlight retailers who will be in attendance. This creates a lot of buzz for FFANY. At the show, we actively engage with exhibitors to highlight their newest styles and trends. This is posted on all social media channels. With our free mobile app, you can tap on the social media icons on every directory page and instantly share information.
KH: With our new Discover New @ OR digital platform, [part of the New Product Zone], we’ll experiment with some innovative interactive elements. I would stop short of calling it gamification. We’re looking at Discover New as a way to deliver some real online value to retailers and brands so they can continue that discovery process they have at our show.
FA: We are creating a digital version of Micam. We will have a digital fair with electronic booths that can be visited by people after the show to get more information and updates. The idea is to make Micam live a little longer than the actual four-day fair. We will test this in March with about 40 exhibitors and then initiate a full-scale launch in August.
KD: During the show, we’ll have an online editorial team responsible for Twitter and Facebook. Alongside this effort, our website offers an editorially managed portal featuring up-to-date background reports and comprehensive market reports year-round.
LCO: In the months leading up to the show, we focus on brand awareness [and communicating] information about the entire show experience through social media. It is simply the best way to stay connected to everyone.
As the trade show circuit becomes more crowded, how do you attract the most influential brands?
LCO: We do it by consistently producing a great show and giving everyone the best return on their investment. We’ve been in a sold-out situation for the past five years. People come to The Atlanta Shoe Market to work — it’s known as the place to do business. In the end, that’s what it’s all about.
KD: For us, it is by establishing GDS as the season-opening trade fair. It is our goal to provide the perfect platform for exhibitors to present their new [product] innovations but also capitalize on this PR stage for showcasing their brands and telling their stories. This is an opportunity for companies, but also an obligation. They need to convey the quality and image of their brand. We want to [help] companies be the brand everyone talks about.
LG: FN Platform is the only place that provides brands with this much face time with retailers in three days. If you’re serious about being in business, you need to be there. We have become like the Davos meeting of the footwear industry. Alongside the other Magic Market Week shows, FN Platform provides a serious conversation about business. If you want to be a major player, you need to be there to see what’s happening, to listen and interact.
JM: We already have all the influential brands participating and we expect that to continue due to the importance of FFANY. Coming to New York to present and shop the new collections is a must.
KH: We continue to present a compelling show that evolves with the industry’s needs. The big brands may have the distribution they need or most of their orders already collected, but they still have strategic goals. They can come to OR and work programs with retailers related to marketing or athlete presentations, or connect with nonprofits that support their mission. Those are all things OR facilitates.
FA: We cooperate with other industry associations to reach out and convince the bigger brands to come. We also look at booth positioning on the floor, which is a huge issue especially at such a large show as Micam. At our July fair, the division of the different pavilions may change to make the show more homogeneous and easier for certain buyers to navigate. We’ll profile the buyers so they can focus on one particular area of the show and make the most of their time.
How can trade shows better meet the needs of today’s changing industry?
KH: Trade shows need to evolve with the times. The days of line showings and order writing are over. We need to provide retailers with an environment where they can see trends emerging, see the future coming up on the horizon so they can plan for that. We need to show them things like new merchandising techniques or how to integrate cutting-edge technology into their store experience.
KD: The footwear industry is very dynamic. Change occurs constantly and with that the requirements of the market. The main principle of a trade fair should be a permanent adjustment to the needs and expectations of the sector. To stay up to date, we must continually introduce new concepts and projects.
JM: We must adapt and keep pace with the evolving industry. FFANY 365 is a perfect example of this. We created this tool to help improve business [interactions and relationships] between the retailer and wholesaler for the present and future.
LG: We need to pay attention to the big picture and listen to our customers, both exhibitors and retailers. It’s a matter of taking all that chatter and feedback and determining the best way to move the show forward. Yes, order writing is still important, but trade shows like FN Platform have evolved to become almost a business summit. Everyone in the industry comes together under one roof at one time. It’s a marketing and branding opportunity; it’s a PR opportunity. The business that gets conducted post-show only happens because of the interaction and face time at the show.
FA: Every show needs to find its niche. With the big changes coming for Micam, our goal is to keep the show a business and selling opportunity but provide more content and opportunities for buyers to get inspiration and trend information. That is something people are asking for.
LCO: Trade shows need to stay out in front of the [changes]. We must listen to our attendees and constantly strive to give them what they are looking for — after all, without them we would not exist.
What are the most critical challenges facing the footwear industry right now?
LG: Showrooming continues to be an issue for retailers. When consumers do this, it not only takes away the time of the salespeople in the stores but has a trickle-down effect on [the economies of] the towns and cities where these stores are located.
KH: One of the biggest challenges for outdoor specialty retailers is figuring out how to navigate the online space. There are small retailers, such as Moosejaw and Outdoor Gear Exchange, that are doing a great job online and capturing a nice piece of the business. But other retailers that are not as tuned in to that e-tailing experience are having a hard time.
JM: One critical challenge for both retailers and wholesalers is holding on to their market share as the big [companies] get bigger. Good or bad, the shoe world is trying to prove that big is better. Only time will tell.
FA: Financing in Europe, even in Germany, is becoming a real issue, especially because of the delay in payments, which is widespread. Another issue we’re seeing is that smaller footwear companies are not well structured when it comes to areas such as legal, marketing, fiscal strategies and research and development.
KD: The Internet continues to drive change and force rethinking among companies. Also, more apparel companies are offering shoes, which leads to a new competitive setup between the footwear and apparel industries.
LCO: The most critical challenge now is definitely the uncertainty of the economy. Independent retailers are struggling to stay in business. Brick-and-mortar stores are closing every day, [and] Web-based stores are taking over.