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The bell tolls for "status quo" trade shows

March 1, 2011
We talked to exhibitors, the DTA, trade show organizers, and attendees about the current state and future of dental trade shows around the world

We talked to exhibitors, the DTA, trade show organizers, and attendees about the current state and future of dental trade shows around the world

By Kevin Henry, Editor

No matter the place and no matter the show ... the questions are always the same.

"So how has the show been for you?"

"How's traffic?"

"Has it been quiet at your booth?"

These are questions that have been around as long as dental trade shows have been in existence. But over the last decade the questions have been asked more and more, as companies want to see what return on investment they are receiving from exhibiting at shows from Anaheim to Boston and beyond the borders of the United States.

When the economy began taking a nosedive in 2008, companies in the dental industry began taking a closer look at their options at trade shows. The Dental Trade Alliance (DTA) even went so far that year as to suggest guidelines that dental manufacturers should use when determining whether a trade show would be a good use of their time and money.

"There's really been a drop off in attendance and general interest in dental meetings," said Fred Freedman, director of marketing for the DTA. "Exhibitors are seeing their costs rising and attendance falling. It's the same speakers and the same exhibits, no matter which show you attend."

While the economy was slumping, more and more dental professionals began using the Internet to secure continuing education and learn about products., part of the Proofs family of information sites for the dental professional, currently has between 4,000 and 5,000 dental professionals take courses on a monthly basis. The site is adding an average of between two and four new courses and one to two new webinars per month., the home for Proofs and other PennWell publications, had more than 180,000 page views in January, with the products section receiving the fourth-highest amount of page views.

Make no mistake about it ... the world of learning is changing for dentists and their team members and trade shows know it.

"Dental meetings realize that traditional dental meetings have to change," said Dr. Robert Edwab, executive director of the Greater New York Dental Meeting. "It's easy now for dentists to not go to meetings. We have to find ways to get them there."

From the trade show perspective

Knowing the battles they face each time they open their doors, trade shows have attempted a metamorphosis over the last few years. No longer can only exhibits draw attendees to a meeting. Now there must be more, and trade show organizers are aware of that.

"Absolutely we want exhibitors to be successful and attendees to have a great experience," said Shannon McCarthy, director of sales for the Yankee Dental Congress in Boston. "We have looked at how we could offer different things to attendees, and we know that different people learn in different situations. We have to find new and different ways to deliver learning experiences to people while also encouraging them to visit the exhibit hall."

Part of Yankee Dental's plan included 2011 additions to the show floor, such as a Dental Office Design Pavilion, sponsored by Henry Schein, and a high-tech playground where Dr. Paul Feuerstein, technology editor of Dental Economics, led attendees through a myriad of technology choices with the companies in attendance. As you walked into the "playground," attendees and exhibitors alike were told they were entering a "no sales zone."

"We saw the biggest growth in our hands-on courses this year," McCarthy said. "We offered more than 180 hands-on courses and 90% of them sold out. We still believe that trade shows are vital because nothing beats face-to-face learning. There was a day when you came to a trade show to get the best price on an item. Now there are specials everywhere, every day. Exhibitors have to come up with different ways for attendees to come to their booth, and we believe hands-on learning is very important for the attendee. That can't be replicated online."

Edwab agrees completely.

"We started doing live dentistry and glass-enclosed classrooms on the dental show floor because it was a way to draw attendees to the exhibit hall," Edwab recalled. "We lost an estimated $750,000 in exhibit earnings because we set aside the classroom areas and didn't sell booths in that space, but you have to make it attractive for dentists to come from the classes to the exhibit hall rather than just leave."

While other meetings have seen losses in attendance over the last few years, GNYDM has increased, thanks in large part to its different offerings, elimination of registration fees, and overseas attendance (132 countries were represented at GNYDM in 2010). Edwab knows it's a competitive market in the trade show circuit, and GNYDM had to change to stay one of the leading shows in the industry.

"If you look at the numbers, we were the only one that really popped in 2010," Edwab said of his meeting that drew more than 58,000 dental professionals, growing from just 36,000 eight years ago. "We know that exhibitors are looking at the bottom line, and the ROI just isn't there right now to exhibit at every meeting. Companies are starting to pick and choose where they exhibit."

On the other side of the country, Debi Irwin, Vice President, Meetings and Conventions of the California Dental Association, has seen her show's attendance stay consistent over the last five years, thanks in part to free registration for dentists offered as a part of membership in the CDA.

"There isn't a real substitute for coming to a trade show and seeing products in person," Irwin said. "Dentists and their team members may come to research a product at the show, then buy it later. We've also expanded our hands-on courses and looked for ways to make them more interactive because that's what our members have told us they wanted."

Irwin admits her show has seen a 20% decrease in exhibit space being purchased, and she knows working hand-in-hand with exhibitors is important.

"We accept a lot of feedback from exhibitors and we want to make sure we listen and take those comments to heart," Irwin said. "We want to listen to all groups, and we strike a balance where we can. Families and strollers on the show floor are an example. We know our members want to bring their children, but exhibitors really don't want to see children at their booths. We created family hours where children could be on the floor, and childcare at the show for times when they couldn't be.

"Ultimately, we have to make decisions that are best for our members. The meetings are a benefit of membership, and we always have to keep that in mind."

One trade show in a unique position is the IDS meeting, held every two years in Cologne, Germany. Happening in odd-numbered years (including late this month), IDS has become a show that many in the worldwide industry consider a "must-attend" event. Dental professionals from throughout Europe and beyond flock to the show despite no courses being offered. Yes, they come to Cologne only to walk the exhibit hall floor.

"Trade visitors want to learn about medical and technological innovations firsthand, and they want to obtain information and engage in professional discussions with developers and manufacturers of products," said Dr. Markus Heibach, executive director of the Association of German Dental Manufacturers (VDDI) and managing director, Gesellschaft zur Förderung der Dental-Industrie mbH (GFDI — Society for the Promotion of the Dental Industry). "Trade fairs and exhibitions are superb and irreplaceable marketing instruments and excellent communications platforms for manufacturers, trade dealers, and users. That's why we are convinced that the trade fair and exhibition sector will continue to be extremely popular internationally in the future."

With more than 1,800 suppliers from 56 different countries and some 106,000 visitors from 126 countries, there's no question that IDS is the "kingpin" of dental trade shows. Over the course of five days, it's hard to walk the entire trade show, which is spread throughout four halls and numerous floors within those halls.

Attendance topped 100,000 for the first time in 2007 and went even higher in 2009, despite trouble looming in the world economy. Heibach said the increase was no surprise, no matter the economic outlook.

"Trade fair visitors value above all the opportunity for personal contact, which has lost none of its importance in this age of digitized communication," he said. "People want to take a close look at products and goods, they want to feel how things fit in their own hands. It's important to try out applications for yourself and to address your questions directly to the manufacturer. Most trade fair visitors greatly value the opportunity to compare products."

And what does Heibach say is the secret to his show's international success?

"The first priority is to offer exhibitors and visitors a top-class infrastructure," he said. "First of all, this means a superbly located exhibition area so that the trade fair can be reached easily from all over the world. The exhibition halls must be easy to reach on foot within the exhibition area, and nowadays they must provide fast and effective instruments for orientation and scheduling appointments — modern smartphone applications, for example. In addition, intensive visitor advertising directed at target groups, wide-ranging press and public relations work, and a broad range of communications measures commencing during the run-up to the trade fair and accompanying it throughout its duration are also decisive success factors."

What's the bottom line from the trade show organizer perspective? Maybe Nancy Arenas, assistant executive director for New Mexico Dental Association, sums it up best.

"I believe the ante must rise in order to attract attendees to the trade shows," she said. "Better speakers, more hands-on, and more showy technology in presentations is going to be needed for people to come to the shows."

From the DTA perspective

Representing the dental industry and its members, the DTA has become one of the strongest voices for trade show changes. That call for change came to a head in 2008 with the DTA's guidelines regarding which trade shows were worth the exhibitors' time and resources.

"When we sent out our white paper on what guidelines should be in place for dental meetings, we saw it get a lot of traction," Freedman said. "We had 15 dental meetings send us responses to the white paper, and I think those meetings are trying to adhere to what we suggested. We tried to make the white paper almost like ‘seven traits of successful dental meetings' and I think some people took it to heart."

The main point of the white paper and the DTA's current belief about trade shows? Consolidation has to happen.

"There are too many trade shows," Freedman said. "There should be one large national show and some very strong regional meetings and that's it. How is that sliced and diced and who meets where? That's up to the individual meeting coordinators to decide, but we believe this has to happen."

What's the main frustration currently for the DTA? Gathering reliable metrics to see how many dentists actually attend meetings and walk the exhibit hall floor.

"It really hurts the industry when we don't have accurate numbers," Freedman said. "It's not for a lack of trying as we're working on it with shows, but it just hasn't happened. We're going to keep working on it because it's important to our members that we know exactly how many dentists are walking by their booths.

"We speak individually to each dental meeting and we try to affect change in a positive way. We are open and willing to talk to any meeting about anything that we can do to help the experience for the customer and the exhibitor. We want to create more opportunities for everyone, and we're ready and willing to help thanks to a very active exhibits committee."

What does Freedman see at the IDS meeting that he doesn't see at its U.S. counterparts?

"We have to turn our trade shows into exciting, educational experiences," he offered. "Going to a trade show should be fun and exciting for the attendees. The dentist and team members should be electrified going into the meeting. Instead, it still feels like we're in the 1980s. That has to change."

From the exhibitor's perspective

Randy Arner, vice president of marketing, DentalEZ Group — "For the DentalEZ Group, attending tradeshows has always been a valuable resource and we continue to attend shows for the valuable face time with dental professionals, introducing new products, and sponsoring continuing education. However, with tightening of financial budgets and the accessibility of online tools, we have cut back our trade show expenses. We have reduced the size of our booth space and cost of shipping materials and have put those dollars into more recent online technologies — online CE, social networking, blogs, tutorials, phone applications, and Web sites.

"While DentalEZ may be getting wiser in our overall trade show strategy, we still believe in the dental shows and think they are here to stay. However, they are no longer the only live resource available and as new technologies advance, tradeshows will become only a part of our overall interactive strategy."

Eric Shirley, Midmark vice president and general manager, dental division — "Of course trade shows still play a viable role in today's industry. We manufacture large equipment — dental chairs, panoramic imaging, cabinets, etc. — and these products are not easily demonstrated to dentists. You can't just throw an L-Shaped 15-foot-long instrument processing center in the back of your company Ford Taurus and take it over to a dentist's office (although our field sales professionals do drive full-size vans with lift-gates so that they can demonstrate our patient chairs and sterilizers in a dentist's office). So for a company like ours, we still feel like trade shows are essential. The attendance on the exhibit floor at dental trade shows is certainly lighter now than it was five years ago, and even more so when compared to 10 or 15 years ago. We have adjusted our trade show spending, either reduced it each year or kept it flat over the last few years. We just can't justify what was once a growing piece of our budget on an investment that doesn't attract the kind of return it once did.

"We have continued to invest in equipment that is placed in the showrooms of our distributor partners. As those partners have realized how powerful those showrooms can be, they have asked us to provide equipment that clinicians can see and touch, so in most cases we put entire operatories, sterilization centers, and utility rooms together in a branch location. It's a great way for the customer to start the process of designing and building a dream dental office.

"We have also continued to invest in our ‘Midmark Experience' trips, where we fly a clinician and his/her support team to our corporate headquarters and main manufacturing center in Ohio, and really let them explore equipment options in a relaxed, pressure-free environment. They get to see our manufacturing operations, meet some of our teammates, enjoy our facilities, and work on their office design projects without the pressures and demands they may have if they went to a trade show or local distributor showroom.

"Investments in showroom equipment and in bringing clinicians to Ohio from all over the world are significant. Investments in trade shows continue to be significant as well. We are constantly evaluating the success of those investments, as are our competitors and distributor partners I'm sure, to ensure that we are creating the kind of value and experience for dentists that allow them to make good decisions about the kind of equipment they purchase."

Michael J. Lynam, sales manager, Porter Instruments — "No one has ‘true' quantitative attendance data. The exhibitor's perception is that the shows are down in attendance. Being an equipment manufacturer gives us a different viewpoint. While we would love to just total up the dollars associated with orders written at meetings, that's not a realistic measuring tool. We sell through the dealer network and we judge the success of the meeting by the number of equipment specialists that bring prospective buyers into the booth and ask our sales reps to give a presentation about the equipment. This sort of interaction tends to be a more valid indicator of a good lead (and subsequent sales) than just having a dentist come up to the booth and ask, ‘What's the price of that dental chair?' Taht was a long answer to say, we'll take quality leads over quantity every day of the week.

"Trade shows are very important! The dentists and staff are still using the meeting as the primary source for CE. Getting the attendees to spend significant quality time on the exhibition floor may be more of a challenge and we believe we need to give dentists and staff reasons why they may want (or should) come to our booth. We started to ask ourselves, ‘What can we do to be more of an asset to the dental team?' The computer and a 37-inch flat screen are limitless tools we use to that end.

"When the dentists and staff come to the booth, we make the encounter a valuable use of their time. Getting a dentist on a mailing list may not give you an order that day but it may give you an opportunity to approach the dental team at another opportunity. The ROI has to be viewed in the long term."

Chris Corsette, director of marketing, Septodont NA — "Trade shows are still an important element in an effective marketing plan. There is no other way to expose products and disseminate information on a mass scale than in a venue such as a trade show. However the definition of the word vital should be understood when accessing the success of a trade show. What are the expectations when participating in a trade show? Some may measure their participation strictly on the numbers or orders or dollars generated at a show. Others may find that the exposure and contacts were paramount to the event success. I believe that the paradigm has changed over the years in how we look at trade shows and our way of measuring the success.

"As I mentioned earlier, there has been an evolution of thought concerning trade shows. The Internet has become a convenient source for information without the need to leave the office or your home, and now people are more educated as to what they need when they come to a show. The trade show was a beginning point years ago as to identifying a need, seeking the right information, sourcing the product, and then purchasing it. Today the trade show attendee is more educated and comes to the show with a purpose. We see more people coming to us with pertinent questions or asking about new products they have either heard about or seen via other media sources."

From the dental professional's perspective

Dr. Marty Jablow, DMD, Woodbridge, N.J. — "Trade shows are still viable, but there are way too many and things are now diluted."

Tija Hunter, CDA, EFDA, an expanded functions dental assistant/office manager in O'Fallon, Mo. — "I love the learning aspect of trade shows. I'm a sponge. I want all the information I can get, but I also love the showroom floor with all the goodies. I get to see so much new material and try new products. I still believe trade shows are a great learning tool and will continue to be so. I'm hooked, and I would go to more if I could."

Dr. John Wagner of Seattle — "The exhibit floor — that is a long discussion. Washington and Oregon are examples of exhibit disasters when you consider how many sales are done (on the whole) versus dollars spent on rent, samples, shipping, etc. Even if you do not get sales, it is nice to see dentists at least looking, but even that does not happen. I have always felt that the major exhibitors should not show up at all these little meetings and not give money to support them — they get no return and how can they lose customers if none are there? Shows should be in the late fall, winter, or early spring. People just do not want to go on the exhibit floor when the sun is out and they have sat in a lecture most of the day. Lots of things have been tried out here and none have worked to get more people on the floor, even free wine. Big meetings, such as Chicago, Hinman, and CDA, work well because they are ‘the thing.' Here in our area we should have only one meeting a year between Oregon and Washington and in early April, but as long as they sell booths to the dumb exhibitors they will not stop. Heck, they do not even treat them nicely. We tried years ago to get one or two of the exhibitors on the state committee for the show and they snubbed us (I was an exhibitor for years on my own and learned a lot). These shows are a big part of the state budget and they will not help or talk to the exhibitors. Plus we now have all these shows in Vegas (townies) that take away from the local shows and traffic on the exhibit floor. I do not have an answer, and maybe like the game of golf, the best has come and gone."