Trade shows, you have one job: deliver buyers. It sounds simple and yet so uncertain in our industry right now. Are people going to show up at the next trade show? It’s a mystery. Will vendors be successful at the next horse show? Who knows. 

I thought the American Equestrian Trade Association (AETA) show was going through a rough patch but these are images from this past week at the Western and English Sales Association show (WESA) in Denver. 

Trade show floor on Thursday afternoon

Imagine row upon row of this. It was brutal. I’ve been to hundreds of trade shows in various industries and this was by far the least amount of traffic I’ve ever seen in my entire life. 

Putting the larger exhibitors in permanent showrooms in a different building certainly didn’t help. It may work for the big brands but it destroys the rest of the show. I don’t think this segregated concept is the future at all. If you look at the next generation that will be taking over the industry, millennials and Gen Z, they’re collaborative. They want to attend inspiring events that deliver a good experience. This layout is anything but.

Other building with permanent show rooms. The show was open when this photo was taken.

I’m sure the show organizers will be meeting to figure out what went wrong. Maybe it was the date, maybe it was the location, maybe there are less retailers in general, but maybe the issues are deeper than that. What I know is that you can’t ask companies to spend $3,000 plus in travel expenses, food, booth space, their time, and not deliver a profitable experience.

There are many vibrant equestrian businesses of all sizes. Dynamic, forward-looking people working both in retail and the manufacturing side. Clearly, there is something fundamentally wrong if we’re struggling to attract participation at the few North American events we have. I think our industry deserves better than a slow decline toward irrelevance.

We need to find the root cause of the problem and a solution. Personally, I don’t think 20 small regional shows are the answer. Neither would be merging different associations, in my opinion. Two wrongs don’t make a right. While it had great staff and shuttle service, this Denver show was worse than any AETA show I’ve ever attended (maybe the January one is better, but I’m going with what I witnessed). 

So, where do we go from here? Sure, purchasing habits are changing but I haven’t seen anyone at horse shows riding naked without any tack just yet. Retailers aren’t going to be suddenly wiped out. As long as people keep riding horses, they will need equipment, clothing, and services. 

There is no reason why we can’t have a successful trade event in North America. However, it needs to suit the needs of an evolving marketplace and be worth the time and money. Are these trade shows, with this format, what the majority of the businesses need? Are they still relevant, right now and looking forward three, five years? How can we ensure that attendees get a good return on their investment? 

I don’t have all the answers but I think it’s going to take more than changing dates and locations to move the industry forward. I’m personally committing to doing that in 2020. It will not be a buying show or anything that replaces what already exists, but I will be organizing something for our industry. If you’d like to get involved or share your thoughts, you can email me here.