By Robert Tutterow
Is there a changing landscape in fire service trade shows?
In the past 30 years, there have been annual broad product-line trade shows with national appeal, and there have also been some “semi-regional” trade shows through this time. With one notable exception, the number of exhibitors at many shows seems to be trending downward-state shows and conferences excluded. Ask 10 trade show attendees why they think this is happening and you will likely get a dozen different answers. As the old saying goes, “I can’t describe it, but I know it when I see it.”
Without a doubt, the extended economic downturn is a contributing factor. I recently read a quote from Glen Usdin, a former magazine publisher, that states, “The fire service is a low-tech market that has zero potential for growth, and the amount of new products and services being introduced each year is very small. We keep our expensive stuff for a long time and don’t really embrace much new technology.” He adds, “Look at declining trade show participations as well, and you can see how tough it is to sell stuff to the fire service.” I found this comment to be humbling as it was something I have never considered or heard mentioned.
Vendors have often expressed that there are too many trade shows. I understand that trade shows typically consume a weekend, and the cost of exhibiting at a trade show is very expensive. The expenses include space rental, booth transportation costs, booth material handling costs, booth liability insurance, booth electricity, transportation costs for booth staff, lodging costs for booth staff, food, and other various expenses. Important to note is that Interschutz, in Germany-the largest fire trade show on the planet-draws from all continents and it is held only once every five years. Is the United States headed toward only one major trade show? If so, is that good or bad?
What else is changing about trade shows? My observation is that the younger generation of firefighters has less interest in their equipment than the older generations. This is disappointing, because the fire service owes it to itself and the public to make informed apparatus and equipment selections and purchases. This publication is unique and has value because it provides a lot of needed information about equipment and the equipment industry. However, in my mind, there is no substitute for the educational value of a trade show. It provides the opportunity to speak directly with competing manufacturers at one time. It is the ideal setting for comparative analysis.
Reputable manufacturers want an informed and educated customer. Less reputable manufacturers-not so much. So much of the equipment we select is directly related to the safety and health of firefighters. Equipment selection should be based on an informed decision-making process. I can’t think of a better format than a trade show for such information.
Trade show attendees should have a prepared agenda before attending a show. They should research manufacturer Web sites for products of interest and have a prepared list of questions. Fire service personnel responsible for health and safety, specifying, recommending, or purchasing equipment should have a basic understanding of the industry-i.e., the real experts, movers, and shakers. Is a particular manufacturer trending upward, downward, or treading water?
One of my litmus tests is whether or not a manufacturer is engaged in the greater fire service. Does it really understand the fire service, and is it involved outside of its immediate self-interest? Or, is it simply trying to make the next quarterly report look good? I think involved manufacturers will outperform and outlast others. They better understand product support and product innovation.
In addition, most trade shows offer excellent classroom and occasionally hands-on demonstrations. Last, but not least, trade shows offer perfect networking opportunities.
Its Own Enemy
Regrettably, the fire service may be its own worst enemy in harming trade show attendance. For most local governments, the first thing that gets cut is travel. Why is that? Because travel is viewed as a junket, and unfortunately that is true for too many in the fire service. Having had a bit of experience in conducting smaller trade shows and symposiums, I often stress that the educational environment should withstand the scrutiny of any local media that decide to track an attendee-both during the show and after hours.
Only time will tell if the current trend in trade shows continues. One of my favorite sayings from Chief (Ret.) Alan Brunacini, Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department, is: “A big part of life is showing up!”
ROBERT TUTTEROW retired as safety coordinator for the Charlotte (NC) Fire Department and is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board. His 34-year career includes 10 as a volunteer. He has been very active in the National Fire Protection Association through service on the Fire Service Section Executive Board and technical committees involved with safety, apparatus, and personal protective equipment. He is a founding member and president of the Fire Industry Equipment Research Organization (F.I.E.R.O.).