Water industry bodies mull ACE/WEFTEC merger

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Attendance numbers for WEFTEC and ACE have been slow to recover in the wake of the recession, and many vendors are asking themselves if they can still afford to exhibit at two major annual events.

 Attendance at major water and wastewater industry conferences has yet to fully recover from the effect of the recession. As a result, a number of suppliers are having a tough time justifying the expense of exhibiting at several key events in one year. Several vendors exhibiting at the American Water Works Association’s (AWWA) ACE12 event in Dallas told AWI they believed the industry might be better served either through consolidation of large-scale events like ACE and WEFTEC, or by alternating the years in which they are held.

It isn’t clear, however, if the two associations would be willing or able to pool their resources into one “mega-show” that would attract virtually the entire industry over the course of a week. AWWA and the Water Environment Federation (WEF) currently partner on the annual Utility Management Conference, which has been a success. AWWA also had success partnering with the American Membrane Technology Association on the first Membrane Technology Conference & Exposition, which was held in late February and early March in Glendale, Ariz. Those events, however, are small relative to a hypothetical ACE/WEFTEC merged conference. AWWA’s director of communications Greg Kail told AWI there are ways in which the two organizations can work together to produce “high-quality” events, but acknowledged that there is no data available to suggest whether a combined show would be a positive or a negative.
Tom Mills, vice president of marketing and business development for Severn Trent Services, told AWI the two organizations were close to consolidating their events several years ago, but ACE “backed out.” The discussions arose from meetings of the Water and Wastewater Equipment Manufacturers Association (WWEMA), for which Mills once served as chairman.
“That was really disturbing at the time because it’s my feeling – and a lot of others believe – that if these two joined up, we would have a world-class show,” Mills said.
An AWI analysis of the major water and wastewater industry associations’ revenue sources revealed that while both AWWA and WEF earn significant amounts of revenue from conferences and seminars, the latter receives a much greater share from its events (see chart). In 2010, for instance, WEF attributed 58 percent, or $12 million, of its $20.6 million in total revenue to conferences and seminars. AWWA’s revenue that year totaled $30.3 million, with $7.5 million (approximately 25 percent) attributed to conferences and seminars.
Both organizations saw their total revenues decline from 2008 to 2010, according to tax forms filed with the IRS (see chart). AWWA’s total revenues fell 12 percent during that time period, with the biggest drop occurring between 2008 and 2009. The recession appears to have taken a toll on the major associations, so if there is any mutual financial incentive for both parties to consolidate their marquee events, it would appear to bear consideration.
Indeed, WEFTEC saw its attendance numbers fall significantly in the wake of the economic crisis. In 2008, WEFTEC attracted nearly 22,000 attendees to Chicago. Last year’s event, held in Los Angeles, drew less than 17,000. WEF Executive Director Jeff Eger told AWI his organization is fully aware of the economic challenges vendors are facing, and that has played a role in WEF’s decision to alternate between two cities – New Orleans and Chicago – beginning this year and lasting until 2018.
The attendance figures for ACE12 will not be available until July, but Kail expressed confidence that the numbers would be strong.
Even if attendance is beginning to stabilize and recover, vendors are looking at their own balance sheets and asking themselves how long they can afford to have a strong presence at both each year.
“These shows are getting very expensive,” Sylvie Roy, communications and marketing manager for Degremont Technologies, told AWI. “The associations have been very good at keeping the cost of booth space relatively unchanged for the last few years, but related costs – travel, hotel, booth items, etc. – have increased, making show attendance more expensive for both exhibitors and attendees.”
Roy noted that many engineering consulting firms and manufacturers appeared to send fewer personnel to ACE12 than they had in the past, although many of them were still represented by key decision-makers.
“For us it’s certainly not about numbers,” Roy said. “It’s about who comes, and the ‘who’ still showed up.”
Roy stressed that while AWWA’s annual conference and WEFTEC remain vital to the industry, the blurring of the line between water and wastewater service and equipment providers presents a dilemma to vendors who want to reach both sectors without stretching their marketing budgets too thinly.
Some suppliers, however, have divisions that do not serve both markets and enjoy the ability to exhibit at both shows annually. Aura Joyce, marketing communication manager for Aegion, told AWI that AWWA’s annual conference allows divisions such as Corrpro and Fyfe to reach an audience WEF does not serve. If the two events were to be held in alternating years, those companies’ visibility in the drinking water market would be drastically reduced.
Other suppliers such as Trojan UV and Pentair favor the idea of a biennial “mega-show.”
“I think WEF and ACE really need to find a way to improve attendance at both shows – which would be a challenge – or they need to come to a consolidation agreement,” Tania Testa, marketing communications director for Trojan, told AWI Pentair’s commercial director Bill Musiak said there are enough suppliers offering both water and wastewater products and services to support a combined event.
“We do a lot of shows in Europe, and we see that when you stagger the shows more – when you have a longer time between them – people pay attention and they put more effort in,” Musiak said. “They invest more money, they have better booths and they show off more innovations. When you’re doing it every year, it almost feels like you’re being there just to be there.”
It does not appear that AWWA or WEF have polled their members on the subject of consolidating their respective events, but discussions related to that topic are still being held among members of WWEMA, Roy said.
If AWWA and WEF are willing to align their resources and merge their main events, it could grease the skids for a “one voice for water” campaign among the industry associations and top executives. Both organizations have shown openness to such an undertaking.
Eger said his organization is “all in” for a potential industrywide ad blitz designed to communicate the value of water to ratepayers. WEF has already made good strides with its new “Water’s Worth It!” campaign, which allows members access to downloadable advertisements and data to be shared with the public.
Eger said WEF has had conversations related to that topic with several industry leaders, and he expects a “strong, unified effort” to take shape as early as the end of the summer. “I think all ears are open to the possibilities, and we’re hopeful that whatever the ultimate outcome of those kinds of discussions is will help the public, our elected leaders and the business community better recognize the value of water service in all its forms,” Kail said.