Plans Underway for EDexpo Replacement

An Interview with Tom Brennan

by Tina Manzer

By the time most people arrived in Las Vegas in March, the announcement about future EDexpo shows had already been made. It said this.

The Executive Committee of the Education Market Association announced today, due to a combination of a rapidly-changing marketplace and decreasing participation at EDexpo, the planned future events in Mobile, AL, and Memphis, TN will not take place as scheduled. The EDmarket leadership, with your help, will create a high-value event that will better serve the needs of the industry. The goal is to debut this new event in 2018.

While current market conditions have made EDexpo in its current format unsustainable, EDmarket remains committed to working with its membership base to create connections that provide value and commerce.
    
In the coming months, the industry will explore all options on how to infuse a reinvented EDexpo with new energy and importance. “We are asking our members to join their elected leaders in creating an exciting, financially-sustainable event in which all participants can achieve greater value and ROI,” says Laurie Uherek, EDmarket chair of the board. “We are counting on the EDmarket membership to come together to create a strong future.

Throughout the three-day event, the 170 or so exhibitors mourned the loss of the longstanding annual tradeshow, but the disappointing number of people walking the aisles told the whole story.

In a recent interview, Tom Brennan, president of School Outfitters and new EDmarket board chair, explained the reasons behind the cancellations, the ways EDmarket leadership is addressing it, and the importance of member input over the coming weeks.

ED: From your perspective, was there something “wrong” with EDexpo that would explain declining dealer attendance?

TB: The biggest issue has not been with the show itself. The show worked very well for years. Three things happened to change that: one major, two contributing.

First, a large part of our historical audience is literally gone. There has been a tremendous shift in how products are bought by teachers, who have always been a large part of the supplemental curriculum marketplace. In the past, they went to teacher stores primarily and catalogs secondarily.

Since the advent of the internet, all retail has taken a hit. Specialty retail like ours, however, has been particularly impacted; the lion’s share of historical EDexpo attendees.

Of the estimated $600 to $700 that teachers spend of their own money, a large portion of that has migrated online and to Amazon over the last 10 years. The result is many of those teacher stores are out of business. One supplier told me he lost 800 customers in that time period.

The ones who remain have improved their value proposition: some offer professional development, some have started marketing more aggressively to school districts, others have added more seasonal elements to their product offerings.

A contributing factor is a shift in the product introduction process to the market. EDexpo was originally a buying show for retailers. In the “old” days you went there and literally placed orders for the back-to-school season. There were show specials for discounting and dating that were not available through any other means. That’s not as important as it was. Products now get introduced to market earlier, so by the time EDexpo rolls around, many people have already seen what’s new.

The other contributing factor is the ECRM show. It has cherry picked key buyers and offered them free transportation, lodging and meals. As the market consolidated, this meant ECRM could get more of the total purchasing power of the market in front of manufacturers. I think it is a pretty limited model, but when you think of it in terms of a “cost per sales call” it does work.

What is “wrong” that we want to fix is that our conversation needs to be broader and inclusive across the whole of the market. It has to be about all the issues our common education customer faces, and all the ways products and services can be successfully developed, marketed, and sold to them.

We were in the same place six years ago with the School Equipment Show. It was a limited conversation between manufacturers and distributors. It was a sleepy show in danger of going away. Some visionaries in EDmarket leadership realized it could become the show to understand the changes in the educational environment and how to support new learning approaches. We rebranded as EDspaces, introduced knowledge partners such as architects, curriculum directors and facility managers, and suddenly the knowledge and information you gain there are vitally important to many players. It’s now a show that people cannot afford to miss, and growing quickly.

I think it is very important that all the members of EDmarket remind themselves that we can do more together than apart. There is real value for us to band together and manage the conversation versus outsourcing to for-profit shows like ECRM.

Associations provide tremendous value that none of us can achieve on our own. For one, they allow us to interact with education customers and bring them into the conversation with suppliers and distributors. Because of strict ethical standards, educators can’t accept travel from for-profit companies, but they can from EDmarket. We can also study our own market together and share that information without revealing our company-specific information to each other through a third-party study.

We can answer the important questions we all have, like
• What trends should I be aware of? What categories are growing? What products are declining?
• What products should I be working on?
• What are the challenges that our common customer is facing?
• What does the end user value or how is their perception of value changing?
• What distribution channels are rising in importance? Declining?
• How do I penetrate certain markets or channels that I am not familiar with?
• How does digitization and Internet-of-Things take hold in education?
• What will the market look like in 10 years? 20?

Finally, it is important to note that these issues are not unique to EDexpo. All kinds of industries are struggling with the very same questions.

What was the response from EDexpo attendees to your announcement?  

It depends on the attendees, but in general, the ones who are there still get great value from it. It’s the ones who are not there that we need to talk to, if they are still in the market and don’t attend. But we also need crucial feedback from manufacturers who used to attend but don’t anymore. What do they want in an ideal association? What business challenges do they face that an association is uniquely positioned to provide?

Do people want a different tradeshow model?

I believe people definitely want and need to share ideas and information in person, in addition to developing and maintaining new and existing market relationships. But I don’t think that this is a once-a-year thing. I believe this conversation needs to happen all year long. The association needs to become a resource for unlocking the potential of the marketplace for its members.
One way we can do this is through our new B2B Video Exchanges, a new platform for enhancing business relationships. But again, that “different model” needs to tie more concretely to the challenges education customers are facing or we are not doing our jobs.

Are there other ways dealers get new product information that may replace the need for a face-to-face show?

They do have far more ways than they used to. That’s why the value of just bringing people into the same room has diminished. But as humans we do crave contact and interaction. It’s a fundamental piece of the puzzle. The relationships I have made in the market add to the richness and joy of life.

For an event, what kinds of ideas are you considering (location, time of year, format) and why?  

We are in “receive mode” right now, so we want our members to tell us what they think. Of course we all have our own ideas but we have discussed having the show earlier in the cycle, which would mean in the fourth quarter of the year or earlier in the first. It could be multiple regional shows. It could be a smaller show in a more intimate format. It could have speed-dating components. It could have more education and conversation about education trends. I am hesitant to dictate because ultimately it will be about what we as a membership decide. It’s not my decision. I just have to help us find a consensus that we can all rally behind.

Is it possible for an EDexpo-type event to co-locate with EDspaces?

This is a possibility people should consider. EDspaces is already successful, and typically held in the last week of October or first week of November. But it will not just be a grafting on of another exhibition hall. It has to add more value than that.

Could it co-locate with tradeshows outside our specific industry?

Jim McGarry and the staff do a great job of interacting with related associations inside and outside our industry. We always have “what if?” conversations about how we can mutually succeed. We could even merge or acquire another association.

We have four assets right now that are strong.
1. A core of engaged membership willing to work to improve the association,
2. a staff that can execute meetings and plans very well,
3. the ability to creatively partner with others, and
4. the EDspaces show.

These are good assets we can build on.

Who is involved in planning the next step?

Members are being surveyed right now, so please answer it and become actively involved in the planning. All the committees are actively working on it: the EDexpo Planning Committee, the Suppliers Council, the Retail Council, the Board of Directors and the Executive Committee. We all want to make it right.

When do you expect to know what’s next?

We want to come out of the 90 days following EDexpo Las Vegas with a plan to move ahead. But that really depends on the participation of the industry in letting us know what they need and will financially support.

People are talking about the Catalog Solutions show. Do you see that as competition?

Any time there is a new event in a challenged market it creates competition for scarce resources, and time from both attendees and exhibitors. From what I understand, this event targets the Catalog Solutions current customer base and creates a venue specifically for their needs. If this is true, they are looking to teach people how to be successful, kind of a franchise model. I think the marketplace has changed so dramatically that it requires a full spectrum of ideas with multiple channel involvement; you can’t just depend on one channel to create long-term sustainability. Dealers will need to turn to companies with proven internet expertise and a host of relationships to help them navigate the transition. Therefore, I do not think this show alone will change the dynamic for its attendees. They’ll have to look to new ways of doing business to accomplish that. For the manufacturers I think it adds marketing costs but not incremental volume, which means it just cuts into the bottom line.

What specifically do you want the industry to know about your efforts to come up with an EDexpo solution?

Now is the time to get involved. It’s actually very exciting! We are creating real change here like we did on the EDspaces side. I can attest from experience that it will deliver business value to you if you stick with it. Don’t mourn the past, embrace the future. We can chart a bright future for ourselves, our kids and the educators who teach them. But we need our current, past and future members to join the conversation. I believe we will look back on this time and be proud of our efforts and more confident in our own abilities.

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