Crafting a Solution to Falling Attendance

Author: Molly Petrilla       

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For Creativation 2017, the AFCI transformed the show floor at the Phoenix Convention Center into a creative city where exhibitors’ booths were storefronts and areas that represented “Main Street America.” The move to Phoenix after years in Anaheim, California, caused a two-year drop in attendance. (Photos courtesy of Creativation)

From all appearances, it would seem like the Association for Creative Industries (AFCI) had its annual trade show, Creativation, all sewn up. The annual January conference has taken place for nearly 80 years, drawing about 4,000 people from the craft and hobby sector. Programming ranges from networking opportunities to a bustling show floor, along with a slew of specialty workshops, like the 2019 edition’s “The Elegant Side of Glitter” and “Beginner Bouncy Brush Lettering.”

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Andria Gibbon

But behind the scenes in 2018, AFCI — formerly the Craft & Hobby Association — was grappling with a serious challenge. It had moved its annual Creativation show from its former long-time home in Anaheim to Phoenix in 2017 — and with the move came a two-year drop in attendance.

A number of AFCI members made it clear that they wanted Anaheim back. “We got a lot of pushback,” said Andria Gibbon, AFCI’s vice president of events and education. “There was so much that Phoenix could offer our people, but they were a little nervous to get out and see it because they didn’t know the area.”

The solution became a joint initiative between AFCI and Visit Phoenix. Working as a team, the CVB and the association brought five AFCI members on a complimentary trip to Phoenix last May. They hoped those attendees, all of whom had griped about Creativation’s new location on a post-show survey, might open their minds to the new city and also spread the word to other AFCI members that it was a place worth visiting.

Here’s how — and why — it worked.

Tumbling Attendance

For years, the AFCI had been facing a tough time slot — the first week of January — in Anaheim. Gibbon said it was difficult for members, many of whom are independent retailers, to travel straight on the heels of their holiday rush. Anaheim didn’t have any later dates available, though, so AFCI was forced to seek out a new location. They found it in Phoenix.

Gibbon said there was a significant attendance dip when Creativation first moved to Phoenix in 2017 — not unheard of when a conference that has been held for years in the same destination relocates. But when the decline continued for the 2018 meeting, Gibbon knew she had to take action.

She assembled her team for a brainstorming session: What could they do to change members’ minds about Phoenix? Gibbon’s team flew out to Phoenix and asked the city’s CVB the same question. “They said, ‘What if we brought some of your people out here and showed them the beauty of Phoenix?’” Gibbon recalled.

It seemed like a good plan. AFCI would choose five people to represent its anti-Phoenix contingent. Visit Phoenix would assemble an itinerary and comp their trip. Gibbon and her team went back home and scoured their post-event surveys for members who expressed dissatisfaction with Creativation’s new location. They specifically looked for people across different subsets of AFCI’s membership.

The association emailed that list of people to ask if they would be interested in an all-expenses-paid trip back to Phoenix. About a dozen people volunteered, and Gibbon’s team picked five from among them: a small, independent retailer, a blogger, a larger retailer, a designer, and an international AFCI member.

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Attendees at Creativation 2017 get a crafting how-to.

Learning to Love a New Place

Anita Takemoto, who runs an online business selling craft vinyl, was one of the members AFCI invited on the trip. “I was very anti-Phoenix,” Takemoto said. “I can drive to Anaheim in my car. I don’t need to spend money on a hotel. I’m familiar with the city. It’s right next to Disneyland. I know the restaurants. I was very unhappy that they changed it and I wanted them to come back to Anaheim for obvious reasons.”

Takemoto’s sentiments were typical of the five members who were invited to revisit Phoenix. Gibbon knew it wouldn’t be easy to change their minds.

AFCI’s rep at the Phoenix CVB designed an itinerary and sent it to Gibbon’s team for final approval. During the trip, that same CVB rep would act as the group’s tour guide.

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Crafters check out new paints at Creativation 2017 in Phoenix.

Meanwhile, a separate delegation of five AFCI staffers would also be exploring the city, finding hidden gems and filming short videos that they could later share on the conference website under a “Why Phoenix?” section. The staffers wouldn’t be joining the members as they experienced Phoenix with the CVB. “We didn’t want to influence them,” Gibbon said. “We wanted to give them their space.”

Over the course of their three days in Phoenix, the AFCI members discovered affordable restaurants, rode through the downtown on a private bus tour, checked out a botanical garden, and went to a Diamondbacks baseball game. They also visited places of particular interest to those in the creative industry: an antiques warehouse, a letterpress, a concrete studio, and Mucho Más Art Studio, a boutique/gallery that also offers workshops.

None of the delegates, including Takemoto, had seen any of those spots before. In fact, Takemoto spent her first two Creativations in Phoenix scurrying between her hotel and the conference venue, too nervous to venture beyond that.

On the CVB-sponsored trip, she learned that “Phoenix is a fascinating city,” she said. “It makes me think that every city is like that — you just need to take the time to look at it and investigate.”

Cindy DeRosier, an AFCI member who blogs about kids’ crafts and also went on the Phoenix trip, said she discovered “restaurants I couldn’t wait to go back to, public art I wanted to tell people about, and museums that I added to my list for the future.”

This year, Takemoto happily returned to Creativation, Jan. 17–21, after previously vowing not to if it stayed in Phoenix. She even arrived a day early so she could spend more time there before the show started. “It was totally different this time,” she says. “I felt more at home.”

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A Creativation participant at the 3M booth for ScotchBlue Painter’s Tape gets creative.

Bringing Their Stories to Everyone

It was one thing to change five peoples’ minds about Phoenix, but AFCI still had other members to convince. They couldn’t send every objector on a paid trip to Phoenix, though, so how could they make sure word got around that the new location was actually a pretty cool place?

To start, AFCI’s public relations manager checked in with the group throughout their trip. She shaped their comments into video testimonials and blog posts that AFCI shared on their website and social-media channels. Gibbon said they deliberately pushed the content out slowly so that the message reverberated over multiple months. They also asked the five trip-goers to share the content on their own social media, too.

“I think the fact that we had [AFCI members] exploring the city as opposed to our own staff or a CVB saying ‘come to Phoenix’ helped to get the buzz out,” Gibbon said.

At this year’s Creativation, members recognized DeRosier, Takemoto, and the other travelers from their trip-related stories published on AFCI’s website. DeRosier said multiple people approached her to ask for recommendations and Takemoto shared local tips with her AFCI friends, too.

Attendance at the 2019 Creativation was flat vs. the 2018 event, which Gibbon took as a positive sign after two years of declines. Overall, she said, the initiative “was a huge success for us.”

Contributing Editor Molly Petrilla is a freelance writer based in New Jersey.

attendanceGetting Buy-in

For meetings that find themselves up against a similar new-location challenge as AFCI, a fam trip for influencers is something AFCI’s Andria Gibbon “completely” recommends considering. “If you choose the right attendees that can become advocates for you, it’s a win-win situation,” Gibbon said. “We were also lucky to have a CVB that saw this crisis happening and stepped up.”

AFCI member Cindy DeRosier, who was won over after participating in the fam trip, takes it a step further. She suspects that if AFCI had sent a few members to Phoenix before the 2017 show “to get some buy-in about the switch,” the association could potentially have dodged “the level of complaints they received after the first show.” DeRosier said it would “do a lot to alleviate the fears” that people had about an unfamiliar city. “And for the most part,” she added, “the complaints all seemed to be either convenience issues or fears.”