Quilts, Inc. released attendance numbers for Fall 2018 Quilt Market last week. This is a reversal of a policy shift that was implemented after the Spring 2018 show when the for-profit company that runs the trade show chose not to make those numbers public for the first time.
I’m really glad to see this return to transparency. The quilting industry is small and Quilt Market plays a vital role as a place to do business, learn, and network. I feel strongly that the community should understand how the show is faring, especially at this moment when retail overall is undergoing dramatic shifts.
I’ve tracked attendance, exhibitor, and booth numbers going back to 2007. (I’d like to go back further, but my request for that data was not granted. If you have those numbers, please get in touch.)
Attendance at the show was up from 2,336 last fall to 2,500 this year. I will say that the roundness of this year’s number makes me a bit suspect and, in the announcement, attendance was described as “right around 2,500” so it’s hard to know whether this is the true attendance number. If we take them at their word, 2,500 is up from last year, but 134 attendees down from the fall of 2015 which was right after credentials were tightened, and 1,058 down from 2007.
More importantly, the number of booths was down significantly. For the first time, there were fewer than 1,000 booths on the show floor. While the number of booths has been incrementally dropping, this time it dropped by more than 100. The total number of exhibitors was down, too. There are 30% fewer exhibitors at Fall Quilt Market today than there were in 2007.
These numbers raise two questions. First, how viable is Quilt Market as an enterprise financially?
While tickets to attend the show are cheap, booths are revenue generators. Each10’x10′ square booth costs $1250. A drop of 116 booths this year equals a loss of $145,00 in revenue. Looking more longterm, we see a decrease of 260 booths, or $325,000, over the past three years, and 287 booths, or $358,750, over the past five years.
If the show stays on this trajectory at what point does it simply become financially unsustainable?
And second, is exhibiting at the show financially worthwhile for fabric companies? Several of the major manufacturers decreased their footprint this year including Robert Kaufman, Art Gallery, Cloud9, Windham, Michael Miller, and RJR. Wilmington chose not to have a booth at all. David Rothchild, Vice President of Sales, says costs were simply too high and they weren’t seeing enough return on their investment. Although he was at the show to network, Rothschild says they don’t plan to have a booth anymore.
To me, the show could do more to attract and retain buyers and exhibitors. As I’ve written before, embracing online retailers has got to be part of this strategy. Fabric is being bought and sold online in quantities by Etsy shop owners, stand-alone ecommerce shops, on Instagram, and on Facebook. As long as these business owners are able to open wholesale accounts with fabric companies, they are legitimate buyers and they belong at the show on equal footing with brick-and-mortar shop owners. When the stigma against online-only sellers ends a new, ever-increasing pool of buyers will open up.
Next year, Fall Market will include a new event called Threads of Success which will provide educational programming for people interested in becoming fabric and pattern designers. It’s not clear yet how large this conference will be, but it will likely add to the show’s overall attendance numbers, particularly on the last day when the show floor is fairly empty.
I’m really glad to see Quilts, Inc. adding new programming and working to reach out to new populations. I attended Sew Pro in the fall of 2016 which was fantastic. (Kudos to Sara Lawson and Brenda Ratliffe for laying the foundation for an event like this. I know representatives from Quilts, Inc. were there and much of what they’re creating sounds similar to that conference.)
It’s not clear to me, though, that the presence of the Threads of Success attendees will solve the fundamental problems the show is facing. Are they going to buy fabric in volume? Without more buyers, manufacturers are less motivated to exhibit, and without manufacturers, there is no trade show.
One easy fix is to make it more straightforward for prospective exhibitors to find out how to get a booth at Quilt Market. Quilts, Inc. got a website makeover a few years ago, but the current site’s user interface is still insufficient. To get information on how to exhibit you have to click three links deep, read this essay, then send a snail mail letter to a committee for approval. That’s too hard.
In comparison, take a look at the sites for Surtex and the National Stationery Show (both of which are owned by Emerald Expositions) and you’ll see how clear and easy it is for potential exhibitors to find out how to get a booth at these shows. Information is available with one click from the homepage. Fill out an online form and you get tailored emails walking you through the process. These shows also advertise on Instagram where their pool of attendees is likely hanging out.
I also think Quilts, Inc., could invest in modern data systems. As of just a few years ago (and perhaps today, although Bob Ruggiero, Vice President of Communications, told me that Quilts, Inc. doesn’t make this information public) Quilts, Inc. was using Microsoft Access as its database system.
David Audrain, CEO and Partner at Exposition Development Company, Inc., and an expert on trade show management, told me in an email that he doesn’t know of any trade show company that uses Microsoft Access. Audrain says that Salesforce is today’s standard tool for customer relationship management. If they are still using Access, I think upgrading to a more sophisticated software solution would allow Quilts, Inc. to better target potential exhibitors and attendees with customized emails and marketing messages specifically related to where they are in their business journey.
Quilt Market isn’t the only trade show facing shrinking numbers, and there are some issues that can’t be solved. Today’s product release cycle no longer matches up with a twice-a-year show schedule, for example, and consumers and shops find out about new products at the same time, from the same channels now. Still, having spent time at Fall Quilt Market myself I can say for certain that being at the show in person has tremendous value for buyers and vendors. If the show is going to survive, we need to embrace today’s reality with enthusiasm and energy, and we need to do it now.