Attractions Expo is all fun and games - and only getting bigger now that the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions has moved the show to Orlando, theme-park capital of the world.
In one day last November I ate two (okay, five) State Fair Mini Donuts, successfully whacked about 20 moles, and played (and lost) against five other people in a 3-D, interactive videogame experience that was more like a sophisticated theme-park ride than, say, another button-pushing round of Mario Kart.
But I wasn’t actually at a theme park. I was at the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions’ (IAAPA) Attractions Expo 2011 in Orlando. On Nov. 14–18, nearly 26,000 attendees - including representatives from water parks, theme parks, and family entertainment centers (FECs), along with less obvious markets such as science centers, museums, and zoos - convened in the theme-park capital of the world for five days of buying, education, networking, and maybe a min-donut or two.
The expo’s show floor was a carnival-esque mix of everything an amusement park could need or want, from full-size rides, food-and- beverage stands, and arcade games, to an array of support products and services like ticketing systems and insurance. Taking up the entire 950,282-square-foot exhibit floor inside the Orange County Convention Center’s north/south building, the expo spilled out into the parking lot, which accommodated oversize attractions from bounce houses to a full-size Ferris wheel.
“It’s a living theme park,” said Julie Parsons, IAAPA’s vice president of membership and marketing. In fact, buyers often bring their families and children to help with purchasing decisions, adding even more fun to the atmosphere. Although it seems like a giant playground, the show’s message and goals promote serious business. The global attractions industry generates $24 billion a year in revenue, and IAAPA’s attendees travel from more than 100 countries to the Orange County Convention Center (OCCC),which in 2010 signed a 10-year contract with the show.
Beyond the show floor, the expo included a packed educational program with five tracks and a number of in-depth institutes - more than 120 sessions all told. Speakers came from some of the highest-profile attractions in the world, including Walt Disney World Resort, the American Museum of Natural History, and the San Diego Zoo. Off-site tours and exclusive experiences around Orlando—such as behind-the-scenes peeks at Disney World, LEGOLAND Florida, and Aquatica, SeaWorld’s water park—supplemented IAAPA’s educational sessions. Many of these tours and other special events sold out, and were part of an ongoing plan to offer attendees and exhibitors a well-rounded convention experience that went beyond the show floor.
A 94-Year Rollercoaster Ride
Established in 1918 as the National Outdoor Showmen’s Association, the organization went through a number of name changes until 1972, when it became IAAPA. The association has held an annual convention since its inception, meaning show organizers have spent nearly a century fine-tuning the event to keep it relevant and forward-thinking. Creating a new marketing theme every year, finding new attendee segments, creatively catering to first-time exhibitors, and beefing up its educational offerings are just a few of the ways that IAAPA is reinventing the Ferris wheel. And it seems to be working: Attractions Expo 2011 saw an attendance increase of 3 percent along with a 5-percent jump in buyer attendance. Exhibit space shot up, too, with the outdoor exhibit area surpassing 49,000 square feet - the largest since 2002.
“There has been a resurgence of positive feelings in the industry,” Parsons said. “There was a lot more buying [at Attractions Expo 2011]. People came and actually spent their money on new things to put in their park. They were there to be in the marketplace.”
Dutch Magrath, president of Chattanooga, Tenn.–based Amusement Products, has attended Attractions Expo since the early 1980s.He said that the success of a show can steer the success of the rest of his year. “The impact on business for the year —as much as 50 percent—can in some way be attributed back to IAAPA,” said Magrath, whose company manufactures go-karts, batting cages, bumper cars, and other products sold to FECs, and also offers consulting and design services. “It’s nice to have a good show, because it probably means you’re going to have a good year. If you have a bad show, then it might mean it’s not going to be a good year. Fifty percent of my potential sales over the next two-year period originated at IAAPA.”
One City, One Contract
A major component of IAAPA’s plan for the show’s success is the recent move to Orlando. In 2010, IAAPA signed a 10- year contract with the OCCC and with Orlando as its host city - a rarity in an industry in which many large shows rotate from destination to destination. IAAPA credits Orlando with helping attract more buyers and exhibitors for reasons having to do with affordability and ease of access, among other draws. “Our attendees and our exhibitors really like Orlando, first and foremost,” said David Mandt, vice president of communications for IAAPA. “Orlando is the unofficial theme-park capital of the world, so not only do attendees participate in the show, they visit the local attractions and what’s new and interesting in the Orlando market.”
Integrating the destination’s wealth of theme parks, water parks, FECs, and other leisure diversions into Attractions Expo, IAAPA has pushed its show experience outside of the OCCC’s walls. More than 156 events were held in conjunction with the show - from behind-the-scenes Disney World tours to a golf tournament benefiting the association’s official charity, the Orlando-based Give Kids the World. “We’re trying to be more park- and facility-driven in how we structure our events,” Parsons said. “Our attendees like to go out to the attractions to see what people are doing with rides, food-and-beverage, etc. That hands-on experience is definitely important.”
But IAAPA has to maintain a delicate balance between using the destination to positively supplement Attractions Expo and letting the destination overshadow the show. It’s something at least some attendees say they have experienced before. “One would think that Las Vegas would be a natural fit, but I’m not the biggest proponent of Las Vegas,” Magrath said. “From an exhibitor standpoint, Las Vegas distracts buyers very easily.”
Beyond the obvious asset of being in a theme-park-centric city, IAAPA also chose Orlando for logistical reasons—namely, the OCCC. The second-largest convention center in the country, the OCCC’s specially designed, one-floor exhibit hall and roll-up, hangar-style doors are large enough to accommodate aircraft. And the fact that Florida is a right-to-work state helps keep exhibitors’ costs down. “Orlando and Orange County is the epicenter of the attractions world, so it is only fitting that we host the largest convention for this industry in the world,” said Kathie Canning, the OCCC’s deputy general manager. Planning and move-in for Attractions Expo, Canning said, takes longer than for most shows—up to a week—and cranes are used to move in certain rides. Safety inspectors also come on site to ensure rides and other working attractions are safe, since attendees often experience them on the show floor.
“This is a show that was made for Orlando,” said Tammi Runzler, vice president of convention sales and services for Visit Orlando. The teams at both Visit Orlando and VISIT FLORIDA work with IAAPA’s staff to help attract a bigger local audience. “People love this show being here,” Runzler said. “In the years the show wasn’t here, the community actually missed it, and that doesn’t happen a lot. There’s very much a local loyalty to this show.”
And loyalty within IAAPA’s own community as well—on the part of both members and staff. “I think we’ve had a number of challenges, from moving to cities that may or may not have been hugely popular with our attendees, to combating economic or weather issues within the industry,” Parsons said. “I am tremendously proud of the fact that our attendees and members place such significant value in each other. We have not seen a negative, which is huge, and the fact that we’ve continued to grow during the past three years has been phenomenal.”
‘Kind of at a Standstill’
Another major component that show organizers say has helped contribute to rising attendance - and membership - is an increased focus on educational offerings. Education is free to IAAPA members, so many non-members who attend Attractions Expo - and pay about $300 to attend educational sessions - end up joining. And new tracks have been created to accommodate the industry’s more targeted specialty markets such as museums, science centers, aquariums, and zoos. “Five years ago, we decided that as a marketplace and as an educational conference we were kind of at a standstill,” Parsons said. “We were very successful, but we weren’t attracting new attendees or new markets. We shifted toward vertical marketing to go outside of the scope of our core membership and attract zoos, aquariums, and museums.”
To help ensure that attendees stay for the full five-day conference, IAAPA has begun beefing up its educational programming on Friday, the last day of the show. Saving some of the more topical, popular sessions - like Attractions Expo 2011’s symposium on mobile marketing - until the last day also helped encourage people to stick around. Indeed, attendance at the half day symposium was 620, and feedback indicated that a number of participants stayed specifically for that program.
IAAPA has also taken steps to help attendees feel less like gerbils in a maze when they’re navigating Attractions Expo’s more than one million square of exhibit space. A few years ago, IAAPA added “You Are Here” interactive touch-screen kiosks by Market Art to numerous intersections throughout the floor. The 42-inch screens display a large map of the exhibit area, and users can quickly search for an exhibitor’s booth by company name, category, or keyword. “That was a tremendous asset,”Magrath said. “People would say they’ll be back in an hour to close a deal, get lost, and we would never see them again.”
Looking forward, IAAPA hopes to encourage more networking and one-on-one connecting between attendees—with a key goal being linking up buyers with buyers. “That doesn’t just mean on the trade-show floor, it also means idea sharing, networking, and forming relationships,” Parsons said. “Tome, one of our overall goals is delivering member value to our suppliers and operators by bringing everyone together in a very viable and innovative environment, and we want them to feel like they have to come together every year. For me, that’s the driving goal.” Well, that, and as many mini-donuts as attendees can eat.
First-Timers Get A Boost
About four years ago, in an effort to reach out to new exhibitors, IAAPA initiated a mentor program for first-time exhibitors, pairing them with veteran exhibitors.
IAAPA also dedicated a portion of the show floor exclusively to first-timers, making it easier for buyers to find them. The program has been a success—more than 200 new exhibitors participated in Attractions Expo 2011.
“Veteran exhibitors give them tips on what they can do to attract more people to their booth and gain sales,” said Julie Parsons, IAAPA’s vice president of membership and marketing, adding that the show floor tends to be “daunting” to first-timers.
Stacey Mills, CMP, director of conference and trade-show operations for IAAPA, said: “To keep exhibits strong through the tough times, we focused on how to make their first-time experience better. We wanted to make sure they had a successful show to help bring them back and attract even more attendees.”
For more information about the IAAPA Attractions Expo, visit www.iaapa.org/expos/attractions/2012