Many industry manufacturers are jumping for joy over news that the moribund NEX trade show is being taken over by Messe Frankfurt Inc.

Many industry manufacturers are jumping for joy over news that the moribund NEX trade show-sponsored for the last 16 years by PHCC-NA and the American Supply Association-is being taken over by the organization that puts on the world's largest plumbing-heating exposition. Messe Frankfurt Inc., host of the every-other-year ISH Trade Fair in Frankfurt, Germany, will transform NEX into "ISH North America."

The first version will be held in October 2002, probably in either Chicago or Orlando. Messe Frankfurt expects a first-year attendance of at least 30,000, which would be about twice as many visitors as NEX attracted in its best years, and at least three or four times the number that visited the final version in Chicago last October, where you could have gone bowling in the aisles.

Having this world-class organization take over virtually guarantees an improved show aimed at plumbing-heating contractors and distributors. But it doesn't immediately satisfy the wishes of most exhibitors for trade show consolidation.

The Plumbing Manufacturers Institute (PMI), representing 40 of the biggest names in the business, has identified consolidation as one of its top member priorities. Look beyond the Kohlers and Mascos, and you'll find an industry manufacturing community populated by numerous small businesses with annual revenues under $50 million. Even a fairly modest exhibit at a major show such as NEX or the ASPE Engineered Plumbing Exposition might well cost a company $100,000 or more, and some of them feel compelled to display at five or six national shows in a year. Registration fees are a minor part of the cost. Most of it comes from shipping and erecting the exhibits, along with staff travel expenses. As marketing budgets get bloated beyond reason, more and more firms are pulling out of this or that trade show.

ASPE's Engineered Plumbing Expostion

It's no secret that Messe Frankfurt would love to have ASPE's Engineered Plumbing Exposition, among others, melded into ISH North America. The NEX sponsors had been trying to make that happen for the past several years, but they never brought enough to the table for merger discussions to go anywhere.

ASPE's position can be summarized as declining to fix what isn't broken. Most members, and even some exhibitors, feel the ASPE expo fits their interests perfectly with its focus on specified products and engineering technology. It's not the biggest show in the world, but it's big enough, and the quality of attendees leaves most exhibitors feeling they got their money's worth. The Nashville show held at the end of October met with universal rave reviews from all the exhibitors I spoke with. ASPE's rank and file also seems to favor the current format over a trade show where specified products would commingle with consumer-oriented merchandise.

And, of course, the Engineered Plumbing Exposition makes money for ASPE. Who in their right minds would want to give that up?

Yes, but ...

All of this speaks on behalf of the status quo. Yet, I for one believe that trade show consolidation is inevitable in our industry.

In addition to ASPE, Messe Frankfurt is sure to be wooing the Kitchen & Bath Industry Show (KBIS), as did their NEX predecessors, as well as the ACR show sponsored by ASHRAE and other partners. Down the road, the potential exists to also blend in the annual Home Builders Show, and maybe even the hardware and home center shows aimed at the retail market. If all of this falls into place, ISH North America could become even larger than its European counterpart. But that won't happen anytime soon. It may well be that nobody will merge until everyone sees what happens with ISH North America 2002. Here's what I see as the most likely scenario:

1. Whether or not any other shows join forces by then, I predict ISH North America 2002 is going to be a success. Messe Frankfurt is among the best in the world at what it does. Its marketing savvy, coupled with the ISH brand name, are going to generate excitement among both exhibitors and industry visitors leading up to the 2002 show. Furthermore, they are going to promote it heavily at next spring's ISH show in Germany, resulting in a significant influx of foreign exhibitors and visitors to ISH North America 2002. Curiosity alone ought to jack up attendance.

2. Messe Frankfurt has made the European ISH show so successful because they have a knack for getting all trade groups to work together in participating and promoting it. They know how to satisfy the financial interests of all trade partners. PMI has let it be known that their members wouldn't mind paying higher registration fees for a consolidated show, and this is where the money would come from to persuade others to give up profitable shows. That's the carrot.

3. Now for the stick. If ISH North America does indeed prove successful, rival trade show sponsors are likely to find exhibitors and visitors drifting away. NEX's decline was the most dramatic, but KBIS and ACR also have shown signs of exhibitor fatigue in recent years. Slowly but surely, exhibitors are voting for consolidation with their dollars.

Trade Show Efficiency

Engineers and some exhibitors may enjoy the special niche filled by the ASPE show, but it is an inefficient way to do business. Most plumbing firms make products that span the residential-commercial spectrum, and it's most economical for them to show it all at the same time in the same place. The Frankfurt ISH Fair manages to attract engineers, contractors, trade workers, vendors and even consumers, who are allowed in on the final day of its five-day run. Somehow, they all manage to rub elbows without fraying one another's nerves too badly.

Besides, it's a myth that the ASPE show appeals only to engineers. They certainly are the largest category of participant, but I manned our company's booth in Nashville and in Indianapolis two years prior, and chatted with an industry gamut of engineers, contractors, wholesalers, reps, et al. Any show exhibiting plumbing wares automatically becomes an all-industry event.

I won't predict the timing, but I suspect the pluses of a merger will eventually outweigh the arguments against one from ASPE's perspective. I don't know the particulars of ASPE's contractual obligations for future shows, but I think it's advisable for them not to make irrevocable commitments too far out in time.