Christian Book Expo: My Take

I didn’t attend the final day of the Christian Book Expo yesterday in Dallas. Instead, Gail and I visited my parents in Waco. However, I promised I would share my summary thoughts on the event.

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/RBFried, Image #4641268

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/RBFried

Let’s start with the obvious. The attendance at the show was abysmal. There’s no way to spin this or ignore it. We only got a fraction of the audience we were anticipating. According to ECPA (as quoted in Publishers Weekly), only about 1,500 consumers showed up. Frankly, we were hoping for 15,000 to 20,000.

If consumers had come, this would have been an incredible show. The “product” itself was superb. Programming, production, logistics, displays—everything was first class. The evening events were especially well-produced and effective. (Thank you Chris Thomason.) I could not have been happier with the quality of the show.

So then, why didn’t it work? We built it. But they didn’t come. Why?

Before we beat ourselves up too much, let’s remember two facts: first, we planned this more than two years ago. It was a very different economy. Many things made sense then that don’t make sense now. Our goal was to raise the visibility of Christian products, and this seemed like a great way to do it. What we didn’t anticipate was the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

Second, hindsight is 20/20. Any of us can look back and see the obvious misses. Unfortunately, things aren’t always so clear before they happen. Despite the fact that things didn’t turn out as we hoped, I’m proud of the fact that we abandoned “business as usual” and tried something new.

Now that I’ve got that out of the way, here are some of the “mistakes” I think we made and which can inform us going forward, should we decide to do so.

  1. The venue was too big. As Chip MacGregor stated,”the leadership at ECPA swung for the fences,… But they whiffed.” We should have probably done this in a mega-church in a more accessible part of town. The enormous scale of the Dallas Convention Center only highlighted the smallness of the crowd.
  2. The venue was in the wrong part of town. As I discovered in talking to locals, no one wants to come downtown for an event. The challenge and expense of parking is just more hassle than it’s worth. Plus people were concerned for their safety, especially at night.
  3. The event overlapped with spring break. Thousands of people were on vacation. But the mothers who stayed home couldn’t get away, because the kids were out of school and childcare would have been an added expense. I’m not sure how this happened; my guess is that we didn’t really have a choice. As a first-time event, you don’t have a lot of leverage with venues.
  4. We shouldn’t have charged for the event. I don’t know how we would have made the business model work, but the truth is, it didn’t work any way. Again, as Chip pointed out, people aren’t going to pay for the privilege of being able to buy books. Not in today’s environment.
  5. We should have given ECPA a bigger marketing budget. We spent all our money on the venue, production, and logistics. We should have downsized all of this and spent our money on marketing—especially on billboards and lots and lots of radio. We counted on our member publishers and local churches to get the word out. Frankly, it just wasn’t enough. Either it didn’t happen or it wasn’t effective. People stayed home in droves.

I am not sure publishers are going to want to try this again next year. With the current economic realities we are all facing, we really can’t afford to try too many things that don’t promise an immediate payback. That doesn’t mean that Christian Book Expo is a bad idea. It may just mean that we have to re-launch this at a different time with a different model.

One final comment: I am proud of Mark Kuyper, President and CEO of ECPA. Anyone can be a “Monday Morning Quarterback” and second-guess the decisions that were made. But the truth is that Mark executed the plan exactly as approved by the board. He and his team poured their life into this project and gave it their very best effort. I think we can all feel very good about the quality of the event. We simply need to determine where we go from here.

Question: What do you think it would take to make an event like this a success? Should we move forward?

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