Trade shows as measure of industry's status

by Morton Sosland
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The current season of industry meetings, trade shows and expositions provides useful insights into the current state of grain and milling. To be frank, if attendance at recent trade shows is an accurate gauge, then hand-wringing would be the order of the day. Registration has been disappointing in almost all cases, without naming names. And while there is every reason to cite global uncertainties — economically, politically and militarily — as playing the key role in cutting back on travel, questions also need to be asked if other factors are not also at work. After all, it’s rather difficult to ascribe concerns about terrorism as accounting for attendance at trade shows in U.S. cities located some distance from either coast.

Right up front, it’s essential to ask whether the meetings and shows have offered programs and product and service displays that should have merited heavier attendance, absent the concerns beyond the influence of the industry. When exhibitors complain about poor participation, all too often the blame is placed on the sponsoring organization or the companies that did not send large numbers. Responding ought to focus on determining whether the show or exhibition is offering an array of products that would make it instructive for a plant manager to take the time away from his job, and to spend the money involved in travel.

Without making a judgment about how the current shows that drew smaller crowds stack up, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to ask these questions. Like the producers of plays that don’t succeed, the disappointed exhibitors have to examine what they are offering. This not only involves what’s actually on display but also how this was presented ahead of the show in order to draw attendance. It’s a rare event that draws large crowds without making a significant early promotion investment.

Of course, programs and exhibitions meant to draw operating people from the grain and milling industries are going to have attendance influenced by the great structural changes that have occurred in these industries, as well as by the current state of the industry. With grain stocks sharply down, with export trade stagnant and with flour milling in most areas facing unprecedented degrees of competition, no one should be surprised that companies have been cautious about sending plant managers or even more senior executives to industry gatherings. This is a situation that is accentuated by the consolidation that has swept through these industries in recent years, where once independent companies have been absorbed into larger enterprises in ways that prompt cutbacks in attendance. Yet, these trends have been evident for some years now, and their bite in the present environment is probably no different from what it was years ago.

The current situation, characterized by disappointingly small registration, mandates renewed attention to rationalization. Needing attention in this regard are the state of the sponsoring organizations as well as the number of trade shows. Consolidation and frequency of events ought to be given frank consideration. These deliberations have been under way for some time, but the recent level of participation adds a note of urgency to studies that have gone on for too long without positive outcomes.

Similarly, the companies in grain and milling that have been the strictest in limiting participation in industry meetings perhaps need to re-think their attitudes. These meetings over many years have served as prime triggers for the introduction of new technology and processing systems that have meant gains for the entire industry. By serving as the focal point for bringing together people and ideas, these meetings and trade shows have been a net plus. These gains have stemmed in large part from the advance preparations by exhibitors intent on presenting interesting and worthwhile advances to the crowds on the trade show floor. If the people don’t show up, the ideas won’t be developed. Yes, it’s a chicken and egg sort of problem. The solution lies in positive forward steps by both exhibitors and grain and milling companies.

Morton I. Sosland