NEW YORK CITY — Top exhibiting companies that customarily support both the Amusement Showcase International and the Amusement and Music Operators Association’s International Expo are making stronger, more public demands for the industry’s trade associations to merge their annual equipment expositions and conventions into a single event.
In some cases, the demands are linked to plans to sharply reduce space bookings for both coin-op amusement shows. Some exhibitors have threatened to stop supporting both trade shows completely.
“Operators are not buying as much as they once did, and every manufacturer is looking to cut costs,” said ASI show chairman Frank Cosentino, who is vice-president of sales and marketing of Namco-America. “The fact that we have too many shows weighs heavily on many people’s minds.”
Urgent calls for “one show” were triggered by disappointing visitor turnout at this year’s ASI in March. But attendance at both shows has steadily dropped over the past decade.
Jack Kelleher, executive vice-president of the Amusement and Music Operators Association, said: “We are somewhat dismayed that some [exhibitors] are considering scaling back or dropping out of the AMOA Expo because they had a poor showing at ASI.”
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In recent years, some exhibitors grumbled about spending $50,000, or much more, to display products to the same group of fewer than 2,000 buyers – twice a year. This year, those complaints escalated to sharp criticisms.
“I think it’s obvious to everybody that it’s time for consolidation,” said Sal Mirando, executive vice-president of Coastal Amusements. “It becomes more obvious every year, and it was apparent last year. We’re going to do what’s best for Coastal. We just may drop at least one or both shows,” in favor of exhibiting solely at the IAAPA Attractions Expo in November, he said. The International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions draws about 30,000 visitors to its annual show.
Mirando’s remarks carry particular weight because he served as ASI’s show chairman for several years.
Similarly, Rick Kirby, president of Betson Enterprises, is calling for change. Kirby previously served as chairman of the American Amusement Machine Association, which owns ASI, a fact that lends extra resonance to his viewpoints.
“This year’s ASI had some great equipment,” Kirby noted, “but the attendance has been spiraling downward. As a result, all exhibitors are reexamining their show budgets. And this reassessment is happening amid skyrocketing prices for shipping, airfare, hotel rooms and meals, among other costs associated with exhibiting at trade shows.”
The Betson president told VT that the industry needs to reinvent itself in terms of how the associations produce trade shows and the manner in which suppliers market their products.
“Multiple national shows may no longer be the best way to reach operators,” said Kirby, adding that Betson’s local spotlight shows have been successful in attracting operators and generating new machine sales.
Betson is not only the nation’s largest equipment distributor, but is also the marketing arm for videogames from Raw Thrills, Play Mechanix and Konami.
In recent years, Innovative Concepts in Entertainment has been among the largest exhibitors at the coin-op trade shows. The amusement machine manufacturer now spends close to $100,000 to staff and exhibit at a single coin-op trade show. This year’s ASI was no exception. And because of ASI’s low turnout, the company is planning to reduce its exhibit space by 50% at the upcoming AMOA Expo.
“The factories and distributors were there, but the operators were not,” said ICE vice-president of sales Joe Coppola, who was describing March’s ASI. “Operators prefer to go to their local distributors’ shows, avoiding travel.”
Exhibitors’ threats to withdraw have put new pressure on AMOA and AAMA to step up explorations of a possible show merger – the fourth major time in more than a decade that the groups have discussed combining shows, and perhaps the associations.
The present dialog, involving board members from both associations, has been continuing sporadically for over a year. The associations’ executive staff, including AAMA president Mike Rudowicz and AMOA’s Kelleher, are not directly involved in the talks.
The eight negotiators have signed nondisclosure agreements that preclude revealing specifics to anyone outside the process. This ban is particularly understood to include trade media, since leaks to the press are believed to have played a role in the failure of similar negotiations in prior years.
Association leaders told VT the issue is being explored and that they are “working hard” to find a satisfactory solution. However, officials expressed divergent views on prospects for success.
Rudowicz believes there will be a positive outcome. “We’re closer than ever to merging the shows,” he said. “I think there is a great chance of this happening because AMOA and AAMA have a strong will to make this work. The economic environment is forcing the issue; it’s something we have to get done. I think there is a good opportunity and a strong possibility [that a combined show] could happen sooner rather than later.”
Asked if AMOA is optimistic about prospects for a show merger, AMOA president Lloyd Williamson, Williamson Sugarloaf Inc. (Winona, MN), paused for several seconds before replying: “All I can say is we’re working hard and doing the best we can. We’ve made a lot of progress.”
Kelleher added: “We are disappointed and frustrated that we have not made more headway on this.”
Disagreement over the best timing for a single show is a key stumbling block in the negotiations. According to Rudowicz, many ASI exhibitors, especially redemption game manufacturers and prize suppliers who serve the FEC market, believe spring is preferable.
Also supporting a spring schedule are leaders of the International Association for the Leisure and Entertainment Industry, majority owners of Fun Expo. After its 10th and final co-location with AMOA Expo this fall, Fun Expo will move to co-locate with ASI next spring, largely to put more months between it and November’s IAAPA show.
AMOA leaders do not dispute that FECs may prefer a spring show. But they say jukebox manufacturers and street operators want a fall show, or at least a late summer event. “Our board overwhelmingly supports a fall show,” Kelleher told VT.
“Fall is the best time [for street operators] to introduce new equipment,” said AMOA first vice-president Russ Mawdsley of Russell Hall (Holyoke, MA). “I get a bigger bang for my investment buck if I install equipment in late September or early October when the crowds start coming in to patronize street locations.”
While it’s undoubtedly still true that the tavern market is strongest in fall and winter, AMOA has recently muted somewhat its former insistence that most street operators purchase equipment specifically around that time.
“There is no spring or fall buying season,” said Williamson. “Now you buy equipment when you need it, such as when you set up a new account. There is no purchasing of machines just so they can be sitting in the warehouse; that is a thing of the past.”
Mawdsley agreed with the AMOA president. “The industry is not one cohesive unit. If it were, these issues would be simple. Even among exhibitors, there is a difference of opinion regarding the best show timing.”
AMOA also questions whether the visitors who support its annual expo would support a merged spring show. “Quite candidly,” said Kelleher, “AMOA has a long track record of successfully delivering street operators – our loyal, core membership base – to the fall show. The fact that many operators have chosen not to attend ASI in the spring doesn’t mean the AMOA show will suffer the same fate in the fall.”
In addition, some operators have expressed concern that if AMOA dropped its fall show, some entrepreneurial group or individual might fill the vacuum with a replacement event – leaving the industry back where it started: grappling with a two-show schedule.
The prospect of merging AMOA Expo and ASI inevitably raises the question of whether AMOA and AAMA themselves should merge, or if they might be forced to due to reduced finances from a single expo. Sources close to show merger negotiations said this subject is on the table, but is not a focus at present.
Much skepticism about a single association remains within both AMOA and AAMA, but the idea also has important supporters. “Personally, I think unifying associations is an ultimate goal we all should have,” said AAMA’s Rudowicz.
As a potential role model, Rudowicz pointed to the British Amusement Catering Trades Association (BACTA), which integrates operators, distributors and manufacturers. “We are one industry and if an association merger is done correctly, all sectors can work under one umbrella organization such as BACTA,” he said.
“I think combining associations, not just shows, will always be in the background for discussion and will always be a key topic,” Rudowicz summed up. “If it makes sense – and I think it makes sense more than ever today – it will get done. As to when, I’m not sure. Our industry is going through a very, very difficult time.”