Q&A with Jay McAninch: What if Weather Shuts Down the ATA Show?

Posted by Patrick Durkin on February 24, 2014 in Members, Trade Show
650x366 01051857 hd25 image by accuweather.com
We had a record 1,047 retail stores and distribution-buying companies show up this year, and they brought 3,193 individual dealers, distributors and buyers to the Show, which was a near-record. We also had 584 exhibitors, a record. We ran out of room on the Show floor and offered exhibitors discounted space outside in the halls ... Despite those positive numbers, we realize we could have done even better had the weather north of Nashville not been so bad. Clearly, a lot of people wanted to come to Nashville.

Many logical, legitimate “what if?” questions started before the 2014 ATA Trade Show opened Monday, Jan. 6, in Nashville.

What would happen if a blizzard forced the Archery Trade Association to cancel the Show? After all, flight cancellations along the East Coast two days before the Show forced many people to fly elsewhere and drive the final 200 or more miles to Music City.

And by Sunday, groups and individuals from Minneapolis to Detroit were renting vans and cramming together for long journeys to Nashville on ice- and snow-covered highways. Meanwhile, folks farther away were forced to simply go home and phone it in. No seats on alternative flights were available until Tuesday or later.

So, what would happen if the unthinkable occurred, and the Show couldn’t go on? In this Q&A, ATA president and CEO Jay McAninch answers questions he fielded most frequently during and after the 2014 Show.

What would have happened if this year’s Show had been in Indianapolis?

McAninch: Well, we’ll never know for certain how we would have handled it because we weren’t there dealing with the situation firsthand. Indy had a foot of snow and there’s no doubt they had major challenges. Airlines canceled about 500 flights that day across the country, and those cancellations affected our Show. The after-effects of that storm carried over into delays and cancellations on Monday and Tuesday.

Having said that, we spoke with Indy’s people, who hosted a trade show at the same time we we held ours. They got in and set up. Most of the show was in the Indiana Convention Center, where ATA holds ours; and most attendees stayed in the connected hotels. So, their show went on, despite people having problems flying in Sunday, or never arriving Sunday or Monday.

What did you tell ATA members as they watched and worried about the Show as the storm blew in Sunday?

McAninch: I told them all their concerns and questions were legitimate. They had every right to worry whether the retailers, buyers and distributors were making it in. Quite frankly, the exhibitors are the Show’s biggest investors. They’re the ones who buy booth space and invest heaviest in the Show and ATA’s programs. If retailers don’t arrive in big numbers, exhibitors have a lot on the line.

Obviously, we couldn’t provide solid answers Sunday about attendance. But we had a record 1,047 retail stores and distribution-buying companies show up this year, and they brought 3,0193 individual dealers, distributors and buyers to the Show, which was a near-record. We also had 584 exhibitors, a record. We ran out of room on the Show floor and offered exhibitors discounted space outside in the halls.

But we didn’t have those answers and assurances when the Show opened Monday. Afterward, despite those positive numbers, we realize we could have done even better had the weather north of Nashville not been so bad. Clearly, a lot of people wanted to come to Nashville. 

When we looked at our pre-registration information immediately after the Show, we counted at least 31 retail shops that registered but didn’t make it to Nashville. Every year we have shops register that don’t attend but this year I’m sure most no-shows were weather related. We also had 67 shops that have attended the show the past three years but didn’t preregister to attend this year. Many of these shops likely ran into weather issues. 

What else can ATA provide to inform exhibitors about this year’s Show as they start planning their 2015 Show in Indianapolis?

McAninch: We’re working on a final, factual count of how many shops attended, how many shops pre-registered, and how many shops didn’t show; and then we’ll analyze how those numbers compare to previous ATA shows. We’re also looking at weather maps from Jan. 4-8 to get some idea which no-shows were probably weather-related, and which regions fell off compared to previous shows. It will be a thorough assessment and post-show analysis that our companies can study as they make decisions about next year.

What would the ATA do if a “storm of the century” ever blasted the Show site and made it physically impossible for most people to attend the Show?

McAninch: The ATA Board regularly reviews and addresses that scenario to ensure the Show – and the ATA members’ investments in the Show – remain protected. Members drive the Show’s timing and location. When we’ve surveyed our members, they’ve made a few things clear:

First, they want the Show held as soon as possible after the holidays so they’re able to take time off from their business. Second, ATA retailers prefer driving to the Show. Keeping that drive reasonable for the bulk of them necessitates a central location in the eastern Midwest, which has meant somewhere from Nashville, Tenn., to Columbus, Ohio.

To have a Show right after Christmas and New Year’s Day means early January. And when a large number of retailers live and work in northern states, and most of them prefer to drive, weather will always play some sort of a role. 

What steps has the Board taken to “protect” the Show and their investments in it?

McAninch: The ATA Board has built in several safeguards with insurance policies, contingency plans and an emergency fund to address scenarios that could affect the Show. Those plans assure everyone that we’re prepared to deal with the many things that can happen when hosting a show each January.

The worst situation, obviously, would be canceling the Show. Should that situation ever arise, we have a revenue-protection policy that insures our gross revenues up to $3.5 million. The gross revenues taken in by the Show are about $3.5 million. So, this policy covers all the funds that come into the ATA from the Show through its exhibitors, retailers and other Show attendees.

If the Show ever had to be canceled, could exhibitors and retailers cancel their hotel reservations without severe penalties?

McAninch: The ATA has an insurance policy that covers hotel cancellations. We negotiate hotel prices and reserve almost all the rooms in every hotel adjacent to or within a couple of blocks of the Show to help minimize Show costs for our members. We sign a contract to reserve those room blocks. As we get close to the Show, cancellation fees become pretty severe because the hotels have to protect themselves. They’ve reserved those rooms for us while turning down reservations from other customers.

So, ATA has an insurance policy for about $1.1 million that we continually adjust to cover all the possible hotel cancellations. We would work on behalf of our members who made hotel reservations, and had binding conditions on their reservations. We take this seriously, because many of our members reserve rooms for up to a week. This insurance policy gives them the opportunity to cancel without being on the hook for rooms they never used.

Of course, there’s another dimension to this when weather causes cancellations and city-wide shutdowns. In that dramatic situation, ATA would probably litigate any penalties because weather is beyond our control. The city can’t control it, either. We’d look for an outcome with some sort of shared circumstance. We certainly won’t shoulder lost revenue for the city because we would have lost revenue too, and already incurred a lot of expenses.

How could the ATA protect the exhibitors’ space reservations and other commitments they made for a Show that never happens?

McAninch: If we canceled the Show, we would notify all of the exhibitors – especially those who reserved space and had specific Show plans – that we would move as fast as possible to organize next year’s Show and roll everybody right into it. That’s probably the cleanest, fastest way to handle everything and keep things fair. Then we would go back and look at everything to see what won’t fit for the next Show and what we can change to fit the next year’s setup.

Were there situations or cancellations from this year’s Show that will be covered by these protections?

McAninch: We had some no-shows from areas where people couldn’t leave home or their airport shut down and they had to turn around. They never reached the Show. We also had people whose freight and equipment never arrived. And some people with flight reservations had to drive instead.

If we find there was a fairly large number who couldn’t make it because of weather or some other mitigating circumstance, we’d invoke the revenue-protection insurance policy and the hotel cancellation policy. We would work to strike the right balance between helping people who couldn’t reach the Show while supporting all those who made it to Nashville.

What happens if the insurance payout is slow to arrive? What would happen to all the programs the ATA funds to help grow and promote archery and bowhunting?

McAninch: The ATA depends on the Show to provide revenue to run the ATA and manage the Show throughout the year. Further, all Show revenues in excess of the ATA’s management expenses help fund nationwide programs to grow archery and bowhunting.

Proceeds generated by the Show fund our contributions to the National Archery in the Schools Program (NASP), Explore Bowhunting, Explore Archery, USA Archery, and bowhunting programs run by state wildlife agencies.. So, yes, almost everything we do depends on the Show’s success.

If a catastrophic situation canceled the Show or reduced it to the point where that vital income source is threatened, we’d depend on the ATA’s $1.5 million emergency reserve fund. Our Board set up the emergency reserves for the sole purpose of ensuring the ATA can operate all these programs for up to a year. Those reserves can’t be used for anything else. They guarantee the ATA will keep working to grow and promote archery and bowhunting, and planning the next Show.

You mentioned that the ATA conducts surveys to gauge when and where to hold the Show. Is it time for another survey?

McAninch: Yes. During years like this when winter reminds us who’s in charge, we know some members will question why the Show is held in January, or suggest we move it to Las Vegas. With a January show, we accept the probability that weather will play a role at some level. We’ll do another survey this year, and will ask again which cities our members prefer for the Show, when they’d like to hold it, and how they prefer to travel.

Last time we asked, 60 percent of dealers preferred driving, and 60 percent said they prefer the Show be held in the Upper Midwest within an easy drive from home. In American elections, 60 percent is a landslide. We’ll be curious to see if those preferences remain as strong in 2014. Whatever the answer, we’ll report it to ATA’s members.

One topic of conversation among exhibitors is the actual number of Show attendees. Many say they are skeptical of the numbers the ATA reports to the membership. How does the ATA determine numbers and are they accurate?

McAninch: The accuracy of our Show attendance reports is the one show topic about which I have the most confidence. As every attendee knows, no one enters the Show without going through a preregistration or on-site registration process. Each attendee is confirmed by name and the business they represent. Most important, each attendee receives a bar coded admission slip that must be swiped in order to receive Show badges.

In other words, each time we add an attendee to our counts, that person has swiped a bar code through a scanner. No code can be swiped again. If people lose their badge, they must pay $50 for a replacement badge to gain reentry, but that badge is tied to their original code.

The count of companies and individuals at the Show, now that we use fully computerized systems with scanners, is the most accurate part of our Show-management process. 

The perception for many people was that attendance was down in Nashville, as was foot traffic in the aisles and through exhibitors’ booths. How do you account for those perceptions, given that attendance was similar to previous ATA Shows?

McAninch: The floor of the Show keeps growing. The Show floor in Nashville covered about 350,000 square feet, including 186,576 square feet of exhibitor booths, Innovation Zone booths and featured-product displays. Meanwhile, we typically draw 950 to 1,000 retail shops and distributor operations. This year it was nearly 1,050, but that’s not much higher than our long-term average.

Spreading 1,000 retail operations over an increasingly large floor creates a feeling of fewer people in the aisles. Plus, every venue and Show floor is unique in its layout, exits and entrances. Also, exhibitors don’t always buy the same amount of booth space each year, nor do they choose the same area to set up.

During the past 12 years, the ATA has enforced tougher admissions standards. Explain those standards, and do you think they’re still what exhibitors want?

McAninch: When the ATA took over the Show’s management following the 2002 Show in Nashville, we began verifying that those asking to get in belonged there. It’s our job to ensure the time and money exhibitors spend on the Show is worthwhile to them.

But it’s not just exhibitors who wanted us to verify retailers for access. The ATA’s Dealer Council, and the ARRO and NABA buying groups, felt strongly that the only retailers who belong on the Show floor are qualified, legitimate archery businesses whose people intend to buy, not browse and kick tires. We don’t hand a badge to anyone who calls and says they own a retail shop. They go through a review process  where they demonstrate they have relationships with manufacturers, and provide invoices and evidence they have a brick-and-mortar store and run a legitimate business.

I’ve always said that if everyone would feel more comfortable with packed aisles and crowded booths, we could give out badges without a systematic review. It’s no problem finding people to fill the aisles. But the No. 1 complaint we inherited 12 years ago was that too many people visiting the exhibitors’ booths had no business being there. They couldn’t buy, they couldn’t make buying decisions, and they were just wasting the exhibitors’ time. Meanwhile, legitimate retailers were waiting in line and couldn’t work the Show efficiently.

About the only other way to increase aisle traffic is limit the size of booths, compress the aisles and condense the floor, but we don’t want to do that. Every company should be able to get the space it feels it needs to attract customers.