Cautious optimism in Orlando
The weather was chilly but business was a little warmer on the floor of IAAPA Attractions Expo 2008 – despite a predictable drop in attendance. Owen Ralph and Paul Ruben report from the show floor.
This, the 90th annual convention and trade show of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) was held for the second consecutive year at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Florida, from November 17 to 21 (Monday to Friday). The show itself kicked off on Tuesday, preceded and complemented by a wide variety of educational sessions, social functions and fundraising events including Sunday’s Give Kids The World Charity Golf Tournament, where a commendable $64,000 was raised.
Preliminary attendance figures released by IAAPA suggest the world’s largest annual get-together for the $24 billion amusement park and attractions industry hosted an estimated 24,000 people from a record 100 nations. Yet little over half of those (“over 13,000”) were classed as “buyers” – a curious admission that may explain the quiet aisles inside the exhibition hall. Park World can offer only anecdotal evidence, but often it felt – and quite a few exhibitors agreed – as though it was last day of the show, even when it wasn’t.
This year’s attendance was down around 2,500 from 2007, when the Expo was also held in Orlando, and far below the record attendance of more than 33,100 set there in 1997. IAAPA, however, is now organising more shows outside the US and its decision to switch its Euro Attractions Show to a new date just weeks ahead of Attractions Expo of may have accounted for some of the loss from Europe. While some industry sectors experienced a decline in attendance, buyers from zoos, aquariums, museums and science centres were up.
The number of exhibitors increased marginally over last year, from 1,147 to 1,154. But the size of the show continues to shrink, and there were a few notable gaps on the show floor. In total, exhibits covered 482,550 square feet of floor space compared to 512,738 sq ft in 2007.
A continuing trend was the reduction in the number of working rides and exhibits, with hardly any equipment on display this year outside. Meanwhile the extortionate fees charged by show services provider Freeman to bring equipment inside made many exhibitors think carefully about how much they actually wanted to show on to the floor. In fact, one exhibitor even started a petition against the charges.
But in an age when you can see most new things on the internet anyway, trade shows still perform one essential function: Networking. Nearly 800 industry professionals got-together after the show on Tuesday to enjoy the Opening Reception, 375 attended the General Managers’ and Owners’ Breakfast to hear Nick Varney of Merlin Entertainments deliver the keynote address, while 300 participated in Thursday evening’s IAAPA Gala at the Convention Center. Just as much fun were some of the exhibitor parties held in and around International Drive.
This year’s 125 educational sessions and behind-the-scenes tours attracted a record 8,200 people, while 1,500 trade show attendees got a whistle-stop tour of the industry at Tuesday morning’s kick-off event. Of course there’s no better time to do all this than at what for many attractions operators is the end of their season. But what of predictions for 2009 and beyond?
“The industry is showing itself to be very resilient and is being true to its nature of being a fairly recession-proof business because there definitely were buyers at the show,” observed Jim Seay of Premier Rides. “Even though the economic situation was pervasive, at the end of every discussion the focus turned back to the success of the past season and enthusiasm for the next.” Premier Rides also received one of several exhibitor awards handed out during the show, for the technology used on its Revolver Coaster.
Like Premier, several exhibitors showed their confidence in the industry by mounting massive exhibition stands. Special mentions must to go to Creative Kingdoms for its MagiQuest booth, where the company was showcasing its new AquaQuest game for waterparks, and to 3DBA and its partners for an impressive display combining Alterface, Kraftwerk, nWave, Falcon’s Treehouse and MIT in one long line.
It’s rare for a park operator to exhibit at events like this, but the OCT Group from China chose IAAPA Attraction Expo to make its first ever trade show appearance, and it did so with a fresh looking booth aiming to achieve a number of objectives: “We are here to promote our brand and let the world know there is an OCT in China,” revealed OCT Tourism vice-president Wang Gang,” but we also want to promote our supplementary businesses including OCT Cultural Performance, OCT Tourism Planning and our Konka television brand. Over the years we have made acquaintances with many companies exhibiting at this show and we look forward to meeting and learning from our friends so that when we go back to China we can apply new ideas and technologies to our parks.”
It appears there are new projects happening, and not just in China: “The quality of the customers we saw was very good,” offered Horst Ruhe of Maurer Söhne. “They spoke of concrete projects we didn’t expect. We have orders from an Italian amusement park, and for a Sky Loop in 2010 for China.”
“The show far exceeded our expectations,” added Dick Chance of Chance Morgan. “We were busy all the time. Not all the projects will go through, but we discussed many of them. The show should always be in Orlando; they should never move it. Contrary to what you read about the economy, we are going to go home and hire people.”
Benefiting perhaps from a good position near the centre of the hall, and having a product that caught visitor’s imagination, Aerophile from France was having a good IAAPA too: “The show has been huge for us this year, the best for 15 years,” remarked Jerome Giacomoni. “People really like the Aerophare balloon and also our new colour changing balloon.”
“It’s been really good for us,” added Gary Goddard of Gary Goddard Entertainment. “Maybe we didn’t see the quantity we’ve seen in the past, but we saw high quality people, serious buyers. We expect to sign contracts within the next few weeks. Three clients are flying to Los Angeles next week for follow-up meetings, further talks, and to sign contracts.”
Valerio Mazzoli, the Italian attractions designer now living in Orlando, only does one exhibition a year because, “we loose time if we do any more.” Nevertheless, the time did not move that fast for him at IAAPA: “It’s very slow,” he commented, “but most of our clients agree to come and meet us here, we are seeing friends from all over the world.”
“It’s been what we expected – not great,” reckoned Ruud Koppens of ETF Ride Systems from the Netherlands. “There are no new visitors really; it’s great for keeping up relationships, but that’s not what you come for. We have to be realistic though, and the US economy is not good. We’ve seen less Europeans too; maybe that’s because it’s less than two months since we met in Munich.”
“The first three days offered no surprises,” reported Andrea Munari of IE Park, who was a little peeved at being forced with his booth to one of the outer rows when empty spaces were available elsewhere. “Why did they stick me in a corner, and why must we pay so much for moving things onto our stands?”
“The show this year was poor,” added Marco Grigolo of Technical Park. “The crowded corridors of the past seem a long way away. Surprisingly, the last day was probably one of the best for us as that’s when we met most new contacts.”
Next year IAAPA Attractions Expo moves to Las Vegas. Attending is unlikely to come cheap, either exhibitors or visitors, but it may well give attendance the shot in the arm it needs. “Planning is already well under way for next year’s Expo,” reports IAAPA chairman and CEO, Charlie Bray. “Our members have talked about going to Vegas for a long time. We look forward to another successful event and to experiencing all that Vegas offers as a global entertainment destination.” The dates? November 17 to 20, 2009.