Entrepreneurs who’ve wandered through the vast display halls of international trade shows would hardly be surprised to discover that such events have become steadily larger, more crowded and more frequent in recent years. Indeed, according to data compiled by UFI: The Global Association of the Exhibition Industry, 31,000 exhibitions each year attract 4.4 million companies and 260 million visitors, with the metrics all trending up since the 2009 recession.
A few years ago, that surging growth prompted Dale Morgan, the founder and president of Oakville, Ont.-based Astound Group Inc., a 57-person firm that makes trade show displays, to establish a so-called “fabrication facility” in Las Vegas, which is home to some of the largest and best attended trade shows in the world.
The 65,000 sq.-ft. space, he explains, is like “a great big wood shop” stocked with all manner of wood and metal working equipment, plus a graphics shops and an assembly area. Using teams of project-specific contractors, Astound’s shop can turn out displays sometimes worth as much as $250,000. “We find we’re a good fit for European companies coming to the U.S. to exhibit a major trade shows.”
About 90% of the firm’s revenues come from outside Canada, although the company now has a fabrication facility in Toronto as well. The company’s client roster includes mobile gaming maker NVIDIA and Porsche. It ranks 294th on the 2014 PROFIT 500.
Morgan founded the company in 2001 after working as an exhibit installer at a range of trade shows. While working on a gig at a Taiwan trade show, he met another exhibit installer based in San Francisco who had projects with Silicon Valley firms. They decided to launch their own shop, focusing on overseas firms that needed to get exhibits built for Bay-area tech shows. They handled all the design and project management, while outsourcing the contracting work to local builders.
“It was a turnkey service,” says Morgan, adding that the new firm had what amounted to a “booth-to-booth” sales strategy. He worked the floors of trade shows, approaching visiting marketing managers and using exhibits Astound had built at those same shows as calling cards. “You could get testimonials right on the spot,” he adds. “It grew quite quickly.” (The company’s 2014 revenues are in the $15 to $25 million range, up from about $4 million five years ago.)
From the beginning, Morgan understood that Astound was playing in an industry with some very large players—long-established exhibit marketing firms, like Czarnowski, some of which had huge practices and revenues in the hundreds of millions. Those firms serve multinationals like General Motors, which, Morgan says, has annual exhibit marketing budgets that can reach as high as $30 million in the U.S. alone.
While the global trade show market was becoming increasingly diverse, with new venues and exhibit marketing firms emerging all the time, Morgan made a strategic decision to focus on industry-specific verticals, such as consumer electronics, aerospace, and clothing, as a means of driving growth. “That’s our secret sauce,” he says. The company seeks to absorb as much information as it can about its target verticals, learning not just about product lines but also industry-specific marketing culture and practices.
While the company has done shows in a range of countries around the world, Morgan still focuses mainly on the sprawling U.S. trade show space and ultra-high profile venues such as the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Las Vegas. He has also positioned Astound to take on clients from Europe that are looking to building a strong presence in North American venues.
These days, the U.S. trade show sector, which took a hit after 2009, is posting growth numbers that are in line with the robust expansion in the U.S. economy. Looking at the state of the exhibit marketing sector, Morgan reckons that he doesn’t currently need to expand beyond his operations in Toronto and Las Vegas. “I’m quite happy with our bandwidth for the next couple of years,” he says. “There is tons of runway. It’s a huge industry.”