DENTISTS, MARK YOUR CALENDARS: First came the ADA’s Annual Meeting. Then, in late November, the Greater New York Dental Meeting in Manhattan. After the holidays comes the Yankee Dental Congress in Boston. February means the Chicago Midwinter Meeting; March, the Hinman Dental Meeting in Atlanta; April, the California Dental Association’s spring session in Anaheim.

Those are just the “Big Six,” too; overall, there are some 160 regional and specialty dental trade shows annually in the U.S. Assuming each runs two days or so, if you broke them apart, you could, in theory, go to one just about every day of the year.

Part of the reason is legal: Most dental associations’ bylaws require that they host an annual meeting. Most of it is financial: Such shows have traditionally made money. Yet all of it has officially peaked. Attendance and return on investment for exhibitors is in decline. What’s likely to follow is the Great Dental Show Die-Off. Consider yourself warned.

So what happened? First, the Internet. Then the Great Recession. Then, increasingly, a new generation of digitally savvy dentists who prefer buying products and earning continuing-education credits online — and want weekends off to spend with their family.

This has all caused something of an industry crisis, a mood heightened when 3M ESPE Dental Products, which manufactures and markets more than 2,000 goods and services, announced that beginning in 2015, it would no longer exhibit at the ADA’s show. Though the decision wasn’t without precedent — before the 2011 season, Darby Dental said it would stop attending the Big Six, diverting resources to direct marketing and enhanced customer service — it was yet another indication of a sea change.

“Attendance has declined. There’s no way to deny that,” says Kevin Henry, the group director of content for Advanstar Dental Media. “It’s become a struggle to figure out how to get people to come to a trade show. You can get the education anywhere. The specials that used to be so prevalent have gone away. People are happy to sit in their practice and let the reps come to them.”

Does this mean that the once-rare opportunity to see new dental gizmos first and build your practice through live education has been replaced by the clickable Web and a culture unwilling to wait for anything? “When I first started, it was like Disneyland,” Henry says. “It was really a special event. But now you can see everything in a magazine or online well before the show.”

Though exact archived attendance numbers are difficult to find (and often feature inflated figures), into the early 2000s the ADA expected some 30,000 attendees — dentists, hygienists, assistants, technicians, office staff and students — across a rotation of U.S. cities. While the ADA continues to move its session each year, it reported attendance of just under 22,500 for the October 2012 meetup in San Francisco. According to the Healthcare Convention and Exhibitors Association (HCEA), in 2014 that figure
dropped to fewer than 14,000.

“ADA attendance has always varied greatly from one location to the next, says Catherine Mills, director for the Annual Meeting and Council on ADA Sessions. “Has our attendance for the past two years compared to 2012 been lower? Yes. But in 2012, the ADA met in San Francisco, which is historically approximately 10,000 attendees larger than other years.” (That likely received a boost, though, from
the California Dental Association sacrificing its separate fall meeting and working with the ADA, “essentially merging two meetings into one,” Mills says.)

The Chicago Midwinter show has also seen a decline. In 2014, according to HCEA data, it attracted 21,200 professionals and students. The self-reported number from the 2015 session: 17,500. The HCEA reports that in 2014, Hinman’s Atlanta show drew over 17,750; Hinman’s
Web site lists just under 14,700 for 2015 — despite the presence of keynote speaker Laura Bush and the fact that the organization gave out $100 bills in the exhibitor hall in celebration of its centenary.

Even gaudy perks, it seems, aren’t enough to trump the lure of the Web. “It’s easier than ever to find information on the Internet,” says Fred Freedman, vice president of member services at the Dental Trade Alliance, which works with 35 U.S. manufacturers and distributors. “With the exception of sitting in a dental chair and feeling the leather, most everything else you can buy online.”

Henry concurs: “A lot of younger dentists cannot fathom a world where [online] reviews were not available. They can do all their own research. Today’s dental practitioner now thinks: ‘I have to close down my practice, I have to go to the show, just to see things that my rep will bring to the office anyway?’ ”

This is simply the attitude of the new generation, says Freedman, who is the DTA’s liaison to an exhibit committee that meets four or five times a year to discuss ways to draw more traffic to the show floor. “There’s dozens of ways to get continuing education now; lots of publications and manufacturers offer CE online,” he says. If it’s socialization and comradeship they want, that’s accessible online, too, and “it’s easier than getting in a cab.”

“If you look at all the major associations, every one of their memberships is declining,” Henry says. “The younger dentists don’t see the need for an association. They’re asking what they’re getting out of it. I don’t know that the associations have been able to answer that.”


The ADA’s Mills disagrees: “The highest-price CE courses [at the meeting], these intensive hands-on courses, receive our highest satisfaction ratings and are slightly more popular with younger dentists than attendees overall. New dentists, defined by the ADA as 10 or fewer years out of dental school, have been well represented at our annual meeting.” She notes that in recent years, new practitioners have accounted for between 15 and 19 percent of dentist attendees. The ADA is doing its best to cater to a younger crowd, though 2015 was the first year since 2008 that it didn’t offer ADA365, a paid-access livestream with on-demand content. “Overall interest, not just with younger dentists, was just not there anymore,” Mills says.

Either way, this shift, along with lingering fallout from the economic downturn, is a succinct explanation of why trade shows are suffering. Even some exhibitors have defaulted to staffing booths without sending their national teams, diverting funds to social media and their Web sites. When Darby Dental pulled out of trade shows, it complained about a perceived lack of interest among dental societies in generating floor traffic. Darby once allocated a seven-figure annual budget to trade shows; it then redirected that money to hiring additional sales personnel and investing in direct marketing. A year later, it said its order referrals had not decreased.

There’s another factor at work: the shift to manufacturing abroad. “The International Dental Show [in Cologne, Germany] went from something that was pretty important to one of the most important events in the industry every other year,” Freedman says. This threatens to cast a pall on U.S. shows. “Somewhere along the line everyone started copycatting everyone else,” Freedman says. “You could blindfold someone and they wouldn’t know if they were at this meeting or that meeting.”

The good news is that industry experts still predict a place for vibrant trade shows — they just might require a few concessions and bruised egos, and a possible perspective shift regarding the customers associations wish to serve. “I don’t think this is broken,” Henry says. “I think it’s busted. I think it can be fixed.”


Freedman and his committee would love to see fewer but more vital U.S. dental meetings. Associations have mulled permanently combining their annual shows, so far to no avail. It’s not easy to share income or decide which organization will take on the inconvenience of a location change.

Strikingly, back in 2008, the DTA prepared a position paper about dental shows in collaboration with Benco Dental managing director Charles Cohen that it presented to the Council on Dental Meetings at that year’s ADA annual session. According to DTA president Gary Price, it was not well-received. Suggested initiatives included instituting a rating system for all U.S. shows based on seven key attributes and offering financial incentives to encourage mergers of smaller meetings into larger regional ones. “It was a volatile time,” Price says. While the rating system never came to fruition, “we did survey a number of exhibitors after meetings, but no one wanted to be too critical. What we did do is raise tremendous awareness in the community. That’s the benefit the ‘reporting system’ produced.”

Years later, a number of local meetings have begun to collaborate with the ADA, including the American Dental Assistants Association, the American Association of Dental Researchers and the American Association of Women Dentists. Mills says they invest money to keep “state and local societies whole while cutting a meeting from the schedule.”

Henry, who is tasked with embracing multiplatform storytelling for Dental Products Report, feels exhibitors and associations must do a better job of reaching out. “Survey your audience. Do a little bit of homework ahead of time; work with those analytics,” he says. “Appeal to dentists as human beings. They want to have a little fun at the trade show.”

You could also turn the whole model on its head. A decade ago, the Greater New York Dental Meeting changed its platform altogether. Recognizing exhibitors as his main customers, executive director Robert Edwab told Henry in a 2012 interview that his new obligation was ensuring them a good return on investment, rather than producing an education-oriented show. In 2006, it eliminated registration fees — a move Edwab said increased attendance from 38,000 to 50,000, including 8,000 exhibitors. Year after year, GNYDM now ranks as America’s best-attended health-care convention.

In that, there’s hope. Consolidation and and some tough times surely lie ahead. But the result should be fewer, stronger, more innovative trade shows. And that’s probably a good thing.

ABIGAIL RONCK is a regular contributor to Incisal Edge.