Big woodworking convention could see drop in turnout

Several top exhibitors, reeling from troubles in the housing market, have publicly said they plan to stay home. Industry trade magazines and Web sites have openly questioned whether making the trip to Atlanta will be worth it this year if many of the big names are absent.

Dwindling attendance expectations have so worried some IWF conventioneers that they want Gov. Sonny Perdue to step in and lower the cost of renting the state-operated Georgia World Congress Center, site of the show.

The conventioneers argue that lowering rental fees is the only way to lure some of the lost exhibitors back.

“I have to believe that something can be done to ease the pain,” said Scotty Redmond, owner of Newnan-based Redmond Machinery.

But former GWCC Executive Director Dan Graveline, who retired from the position last year, said cutting rates isn’t a solution.

The GWCC sells exhibit space to groups like IWF for $1.70 per square foot, he said, while show sponsors make money by reselling the space to exhibitors at higher prices.

The four-day show, the biggest held at the GWCC, comes to the city every two years and is expected to have a $40.5 million economic impact.

It’s important to Atlanta’s $11 billion hospitality industry because it fills hotel rooms, restaurants and attractions from downtown to the Perimeter.

It’s also one of the shows that GWCC and Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau officials are counting on to help erase the memory of a terrible 2009, when hotel occupancy dropped to a record low 53 percent and the convention facility lost millions.

IWF officials maintain the show is doing well and will have more than 700 exhibitors from around the world. A December survey of past attendees found that 67 percent of respondents said they either planned to be here or were very likely to come.

Still, the group has acknowledged the challenges for attendees. It is offering financial assistance toward the cost of unloading and setting up equipment and in some cases utilities. It also spells out the benefits of attending the fair in a letter on its Web site.

“It’s difficult out there and we understand the challenges everyone is facing as the whole industry looks for ways to move from treading water to heading upstream,” said Riccardo Azzoni on the Web site. He is IWF 2010 chairman and president of New Millford, Conn.-based Atlantic Machinery Corporation.

“The fact is we have 700 companies so far that are making a strong statement by deciding to invest their marketing dollars in IWF 2010 to reach their potential buyers and we will do everything we can to ensure they do.”

Trade industry magazine Wood and Wood Products reported as many as one-third of exhibitors previously scheduled for IWF 2010 may not attend. Those include Stiles, Weining, Biessee, Delmac and Duluth-based SCM Group.

If that number proves true, it could cost the GWCC thousands of dollars. How much won’t be known until the show wraps up, said Patsie Rand, the GWCC’s director of sales and marketing.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if woodworking was down this year,” Rand said, speaking of attendance.

Industries associated with housing have been hit hard, and many saw attendance declines last year at their national meetings in other cities, she said.

The National Association of Home Builders, for instance, saw turnout fall by some 30,000.

Victor Cortes, executive sales manager of Morrisville, N.C.-based Weining, said his company pulled out of this year’s show because the business generated would not have outweighed the trip’s cost, which includes shipping heavy machinery.

“I can’t tell you that if [the price was lowered] we would have gone,” he said. “The problem is attendance would have made it hard to justify.”

John Schultz, manager of Waterbury, Vt.-based Super Thin Saws, said the challenge will be hardest for companies with big machinery to move. Tool-makers like his company will make the trip because they are more mobile.

Burt Bradley, president of Burt Bradley LLC and former owner of Brooks Machinery in Norcross, said he wants the show to succeed because he wants it to stay in Atlanta.

The nation’s convention center supply is overbuilt and it would be easy for the IWF to pull up stakes and go somewhere else if it can get a better deal, he said.

“We need to keep this show in Atlanta,” he said.

Patrick LaFramboise, IWF’s president and chief executive officer, said show organizers are happy in Atlanta and that GWCC rates already are very competitive.

LaFramboise thinks that as the year progresses, new exhibitors will replace those that have bowed out of the August show.

“It remains to be seen what’s going to happen,” he said. “It’s too early to tell in terms of attendance.”

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