KBIS Faces Challenges, Opportunities

The Kitchen/Bath Industry Show, set for its 2011 iteration two months from now in Las Vegas, is facing challenges that no doubt keep organizers tossing and turning at night.

It's also facing questions about its role - and its very future - within the context of a rapidly changing industry.

There's little doubt, of course, that the recent economic downturn has had a profound impact on the entire industry, leading both manufacturers and specifiers to examine, and adjust, their business operations and costs.

KBIS - in many ways a reflection of the industry's vibrancy - has been trapped in the fallout. Exhibit space is markedly down from the show's height in 2007; attendance is similarly off (see KBIS: Time to Refocus).

This drop-off in size has been nothing less than stunning for those who remember when KBIS was so expansive it was a challenge simply to get around the exhibit floor in three fast-paced days. In sharp contrast, probably half that time will be needed in April.

But it's not just the sheer numbers.

The composition of KBIS has also changed palpably in recent years, marked by a substantial decline in major domestic suppliers coupled with the increased presence of smaller booths manned by overseas exhibitors, particularly from the Orient. The net result is that, with fewer attendees and fewer exhibitors - including many longtime players with smaller booths than in the past - the show lacks the vibrancy and impact it once did.

All this has led to questions. Among them: Where is KBIS headed? Is the recent downward trend merely a reflection of a weak economy, or does it mirror a fundamental shift in the way the industry views the show? Can KBIS simply be refined - and if so, how - or does it need a major overhaul? Will it inevitably be revived along with a recovering economy, or is it headed for irrelevancy - or worse, extinction?

While these questions are being asked, opinions seem split as to whether KBIS is a "must-attend" event anymore. Supporters on the attendee side continue to see the show as the leading opportunity for networking with peers, as well as the industry's leading showcase for new products and technology. Advocates among exhibitors continue to view KBIS as a unique opportunity to find new customers, launch new products, increase brand awareness and strengthen relationships with existing customers.

Others, however, aren't so sure.

A growing number of would-be exhibitors, for example, believe that KBIS no longer aligns with their marketing strategy, and remain unconvinced that the show delivers enough bang for the buck to warrant its considerable cost. That's understandable. Aside from the expense for R&D and building new exhibits every year, shows like KBIS can cost exhibitors hundreds of thousands of dollars for booth space, shipping, drayage, travel, hotels, restaurants and special events. With ROI growing increasingly nebulous, many companies are opting to spend their marketing dollars elsewhere, particularly as budgets shrink and new marketing alternatives emerge.

Show organizers, to their credit, have recognized the realities. Both the show's owner, the NKBA, and its producer, Neilsen Expositions, have made a concerted effort to refine the show and increase its value. Third-party focus groups have solicited attendee feedback. Manufacturers have been invited to offer suggested improvements. Refinements have been made to the 2011 event, particularly in the area of digital technology - including mobile applications, interactive, hands-on displays and an online scheduling/mapping tool that allows attendees to more effectively navigate the show.

More, however, may yet be needed.

Some observers suggest that the show's location should be addressed, and that KBIS might be better served by considering less-expensive alternatives to Chicago, Orlando and Las Vegas. Smaller host cities, they contend, might prove more cost-effective. Adding new cities to the current rotation might also help rejuvenate the show.

While that may be a good idea in theory, however, its execution could be complicated by existing contractual agreements.

Another idea is to transform KBIS to a biennial - or every-other-year - event. Such a format, advocates say, would drive attendance, fuel excitement, reduce annual expenses and increase ROI for both attendees

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