For-profit vs. not-for-profit: Who's eating whose lunch?

Between Kevin Holland's XtremeASAE post and Rich Westerfield's on the TSMI blog, there's a whole lotta thinking going on about for-profit and not-for-profit trade shows. For what it's worth, here's my take:

When it comes to cash, for-profits seem to have an edge. They aren't so much worried about community-building, trust, relationships, and loyalty as they are about building and selling a show that'll ring the register—both for the show organizer and for its exhibitors. They don't have to worry about anything outside of the show, which leaves them free to chase the green. As Kevin reports on an ASAE session on tradeshow sales, "As one woman in the audience from a professional society bluntly remarked, 'Our lunch is being eaten by for-profits.'"

Also, not being bogged down with the typical association quagmire of committees and boards, they should be more able to leap onto new trends. Why then, as Rich points out, is the ASAE 2005 conference so much more attuned to the future than SISO, the Society of Independent Show Organizers? Rich says:

    I already know I made the wrong choice by committing only to SISO. I'm not saying that because it's a bad conference. It's just not where my head is at. The content - and the conversation - at ASAE appears to be centered on "doing what's best for our constituent communities" while the content as SISO is all about "following the lead of the big shows".

    At the risk of oversimplifying the difference, the former is about customer-centricism, the latter about profitability. Nothing wrong with profits. It just feels like I'm asked to make a choice between being mentored by Malcolm Gladwell or Gordon Gekko.

Exactly. It's kind of refreshing to see an association jump ahead of the trends for a change, and really get it when it comes to where the world is moving. I have nothing against for-profit trade shows—far from it. But if they want to continue to "eat associations' lunches," they're going to have to shift to a more customer-centric mindset. And associations are going to have to be less afraid of selling what they have to offer. Seems to me that both sides could learn from each other.

Companies that exhibit are starting to understand that sales is about more than getting leads; it's about creating relationships that will continue to generate sales down the road, and create those wonderful customer evangelists who spread the word to everyone they know. The strength of associations is that they've always known this. If the for-profits want to continue to eat out of someone else's lunchbox, they should pay attention to what ASAE is doing. And why. (Scott Briscoe touches on this in this post, especially relevant for shows and associations who want to appeal to the younger crowd.)

Then again, you could point toward the Sarbannes-Oxley, cost-cutting, consolidation, do-more-with-less trends and say the for-profits are smack on target with the way the world of business is going. I'm just of the other mindset. How about you?

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