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Economy

CES Trade Show Litmus Test

A worker sets up an exhibition booth at the International Consumer Electronics Show.
Jude Joffe-Block
A worker sets up an exhibition booth at the International Consumer Electronics Show.
Las Vegas CES
Las Vegas CES

For the world, the International Consumer Electronics Show was one big gadget party, with vendors all vying to capture the attentions of some 140,000 visitors. But to Las Vegans, CES was the beginning of the 2011 trade show season. And everyone is hoping — maybe even praying — this year will be better than the last one.

Las Vegas typically hosts about 45 of the country’s top 200 trade shows. That’s because the city has positioned itself to be the pre-eminent location for trade show activity globally, says Chris Meyer from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitor Authority. “I have got more meeting and convention space than any place on the planet and the galaxy,” he says.

And it’s not just square footage that sets Vegas apart. There are some 44,000 workers in Southern Nevada who rely on trade shows and convention business. They are florists, exhibition booth builders, performers and presenters.

It’s a formula that only works if trade show vendors are spending money when they come to Vegas. And the last few years have been dismal. Companies slashed their travel and marketing budgets. Some canceled trade-show bookings altogether; others spent less on local services when they came to town.

“Instead of even having a 40 by 40 booth, [companies were] downsizing to a 20 by 20 booth,” says Rachel Wimberly, Editor in Chief of the Trade Show News Network. “And maybe not getting all those bells and whistles, like video playing in your booth.”

From 2008 to 2009, revenue from business travel in Las Vegas fell 40 percent. Which is why everyone who relies on trade show business is looking to this year’s Consumer Electronics Show as a measure of how 2011 will fare. The size of CES and other trade show activity in the past six months has many observers feeling optimistic. “I have seen a major surge in attendance at several of those shows,” Wimberly says. “Which I think is a great indicator of times to come.”

And booth builders like Norman Davies are grateful for the business. He’s got new clients at CES this year. Last week he was putting the final touches on a particularly fancy booth that no one would have ordered last year.

“Our designer was given a nice budget and told to go for it,” Davies says while gesturing to the booth’s chandeliers, plush white carpeting and mood lightening. “[He was] told to do something unique, something very upscale, and something very elegant.”

Still, Davies says business isn’t booming the way it was a few years ago, and he’s keeping the champagne corked for now. When the economy crashed, he had to lay off 15 people—a third of his work force. And even though he’s got more work now, he’s not rehiring yet.

“You never know what is going to happen right now, it is a scary time,” Davies says. “The last thing I want to do is lay off someone in six months.”

Plenty more trade shows are coming to town this winter, including CONEXPO-CON/AGG—a massive construction exhibition in March that comes once every three years. These are signs that trade show business in Las Vegas could be on the mend. But still up in the air is whether the economic impact of trade shows in Las Vegas will ever return to pre-recession levels.