From Boom to Bust?

Cities continue to build convention centers as trade shows lose effectiveness.

NEWS flashes from the convention front lines are not encouraging. If the meetings industry's own forecasts and experts are correct, a senseless building boom of U.S. convention centers will continue through 2007 at least. From San Francisco to Dallas, Omaha to Atlanta, Minneapolis to Washington, D.C. and well beyond, new buildings or big expansions are opening. (I am endebted to MeetingNews magazine for this information.)

These cities' hungry convention bureaus are chasing a flat-lined number of shows, many of which are seeing attendance fall sharply among attendees and exhibitors alike. The tech industry's woes may be an unnecessarily bad example, but the company behind its bellwether Comdex show laid off some of its staff and warned last fall it might enter bankruptcy if slumping show revenues didn't improve.

Flat or declining attendance has been apparent at the safety and health industry's big shows for several years, even if we discount the sparse expo floor and attendance at the just-after-9/11 National Safety Congress in Atlanta two years ago. No one seems to know where the next generation of OSH professionals will come from; disappointing industry conferences are both an early sign of trouble and a financial blow because they have traditionally been a significant revenue stream to the professional associations and societies that operate them.

One of my longtime friends in this business, a CSP, saw these problems coming years ago. Retirements soon would drain the industry of its most experienced eyes, ears, and minds in both private and public sectors, she predicted, while many of those with the highest skills, highest salaries, and most advanced degrees would find themselves pushed out of all but the largest companies and working for themselves, as consultants.

MeetingNews described the convention center madness as "a building boom that seems to have no end." It's good for convention planners, who are getting cheaper rates for everything from hotel packages to transportation, the magazine reported on its Outlook 2003 issue. But the boom is bad for attendees: Several cities with new or expanded centers raised their hotel tax rates significantly to fund the expansions.

This article originally appeared in the March 2003 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Jerry Laws is Editor of Occupational Health & Safety magazine, which is owned by 1105 Media Inc.

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