Death Spiral of Mineral Shows:
Is it the Chicken or the Egg?
By Tony Nikischer firstname.lastname@example.org
I recently learned that yet another local mineral show has died a quiet death, its promoter tired by the hassles and uncertainty of maintaining a consistent date and location, declining public attendance, and a revolving door of dealers here today and gone tomorrow. It wasn't a particularly great show, but a small core of dealers came every year for those few special customers they might otherwise not see. In the overall scheme of the mineral world, it's not a significant loss, but it is a telling story of many local mineral shows that seem to be in an unstoppable death spiral. What has happened to the typical show?
By way of example, I recently participated in the New Jersey Earth Science Association show, now held in famous Franklin, New Jersey each April. The Association has a long and productive history, its early venues in the 1970's known as "The Seton Hall Show" by collectors because of its venue at the college. In those days, the participating dealers came from near and far, brought both ordinary and exceptional material, and the place was jammed with customers over the entire weekend. Business was brisk at many levels
in the market, and the possibilities seemed endless. Dealer waiting lists to get into the show were long and often futile, and it took an occasional unilateral (and often arbitrarily unwarranted) axing by the show chairperson to create a dealer opening. It was the east coast mineral show!
Times changed and the venue moved to William Patterson College further north for a few years, slipping away to the Westfield Armory quite a hike to the south, finally ending up in Franklin, New Jersey, first at the former Franklin Armory, most recently at the Elementary School there. Excellent dealers with neat material still came from afar (Dave Bunk, Leonard Himes, Dudley Blauwet, Carter Rich and others), but attendance seemed once again to be significantly lower than the year before, and business was slow and often unprofitable.
General comments from many of the dealers opined that the weather was too nice that weekend, the Internet was sucking the life out of all shows, there are too many tailgaters, advertising was poor or non-existent, gas prices are too high, there are too many shows, greedy promoters have jammed in too many sellers, etc. I suspect all of these have a kernel of truth attached to them, some more than others.
What happens when a show fails to meet the expectations of collectors and/or dealers? From the mineral dealers' perspective, poor attendance that worsens simply leads to the dealers dropping the show. If expenses and a reasonable profit cannot be made, why bother? Some dealers have greater time tolerance or deeper pockets than others, stick it out longer, and perhaps rationalize weathering the storm, but ultimately if there is no business, the professional dealers will leave. (By "professional", I mean those who are fulltime mineral people who make their living in the mineral trade,
regardless of what niche they may occupy.) Fortunately for show promoters and clubs, there is no lack of individuals willing to jump right in to fill the dealer void. The insidious creep of bead merchants, un-indicted felons and lesser, peripheral dealers has its own effect, however, as serious collectors stop coming when there is little of interest to see or buy at a show. Attendance gets progressively worse, the quality of customer, like the quality of dealer, declines. (By "quality of customer", I mean those folks who are serious enough to actually go home with one or more bags in their hands. No offense to lookers and tire kickers, but empty hands leaving a show are an indication of something being amiss!) What started out as a mineral show morphs into something else, and finally, it either dies quietly or just stops calling itself a mineral show.
From the collectors' standpoint, the investment of time and money to attend a show has to be worth the effort, too. Today, everyone seems to be busier, with greater demands placed on those precious free moments and available dollars. Collectors tire of looking at the same old stuff. They seem to enjoy good variety, new or different material, clean and crisp labeling, fair prices and good presentation. If the participating dealers are failing on many of those fronts, collectors will stop coming and spend their time and money elsewhere. And here, one cannot deny the power of the internet.
While I am old fashioned and like to hold things in my hands, read a book or periodical instead of stare at a monitor, and experience a face to face or similarly personal interaction, some people really don't care about any of that. Instead, browsing Internet websites, auction sites and other electronic venues opens up the entire world from the comfort(?) of the home or work computer. And since anyone with a rock to sell has access to these venues with no large entry cost barrier, the sheer number and diversity of offerings can be staggering. And that means both a great deal of competition from non-traditional dealer sources, and a significantly larger population of potential collectors out there looking for material. How can a local show compete with that?
I think there are some sound strategies that help a show and its dealers maintain quality, and consequently keep drawing attendees over long periods of time. For example, the New York City Gem and Mineral Show that is hosted by the New York Mineralogical Club is one that is bucking the trend among most shows. The dealer population is very stable, attendance has been steady or increasing in the face of declines everywhere else, and new ideas are frequently raised and discussed among the Club, the hotel management where it is held, and the formal show promoter as well. While the responsibility for various parts of the show is split among these three different parties, fundamentally sound business sense drives each group to meet the varied objectives each has for the show. For example:
(1) A balance of mineral vs. non-mineral dealers has been carefully maintained, even though that balance is decidedly skewed towards a mineral-dominant presentation. If an opening occurs, a dealer offering similar material to one that has left is actively pursued. No "junk" is used to fill the rare vacancy.
(2) Lectures on gem or mineral-related topics are held during the show and are publicized outside of the traditional mineral press in an effort to bring in new attendees. New blood is absolutely necessary!
(3) Non-commercial displays, both gem/jewelry and mineral-related topics, are carefully planned, solicited and presented as part of the show. Participation by one or more museums is always included.
(4) The dates and location for the show are scrupulously maintained from one year to the next. Consistency in this is a key ingredient to continued success. Changes of time or venue are usually very costly from an attendance and logistics standpoint.
(5) The Club maintains a free booth throughout the show, offering information, advice, kids' activities and free specimens for children. It is a place where a new, potential collector can go to learn more about the hobby and resources in the local area.
(6) Set up mechanics are standardized in that tables are ready when dealers arrive, electrical systems are checked and adjusted as needed, the lecture room, water stations, trash pails etc. are all ready to go in advance of need.
(7) Show management is always present from setup Friday through breakdown on Sunday, and overnight security personnel are locked in every night.
(8) Most importantly: publicity, publicity, publicity. Flyers are provided to all dealers months in advance for distribution at other shows. Other clubs in the tri-state area are also invited, and "bus load" discounts are offered. Show calendars for all the major mineral/lapidary magazines that publish them are alerted at least six months in advance of the show date. An extensive mailing list and visitor database is maintained, and thousands of reminder post cards are sent several weeks before the show date by a professional mailing organization. Many dealers also send personal invitations to their own clients in the area. Getting people in the door is critical!
(9) Booth fees and admission costs are well below market rates for similar New York City trade show venues. Discount weekend passes are offered to encourage attendance on both days; accompanied kids under 12 years of age are admitted free to the show and lectures.
The bottom line: successful shows require careful planning and execution by a diverse group of interested parties. And it is clear that those parties must work much harder now than in the past, just to stay even! The status quo simply is not good enough, and growth is impossible without more thought and concerted effort being consciously applied to the mineral show business.
Unlike other venues, the New York City Gem and Mineral Show is expanding to twice a year, carefully scheduled between other east coast shows to avoid conflicts. But, there is a twist: the new November addition is preceded by the fIrst ever NYMC Mineral Symposium, and it is coupled with the Club's annual banquet, now moved to the show hotel. Private entry to the show floor the night before the show opens is an added treat for banquet attendees. A superb, room-filling fluorescent display is planned as well. Hence, the "second" show is really something new and different, something carefully planned, and something more than “just another show". And it suggests that successful shows are possible, even when the internet and all those other reasons for lousy show participation are still likely stumbling blocks.
Like stamp shows, postcard shows, record shows, camera shows, etc. the mineral trade is victim to all the challenges facing
these other hobbies, and no where is it more evident that at our shows. We are getting older, our ranks are thinning, it's tough to find new collectors to bring into the fold. The secret, however, is that new collectors are not found, they are made through introducing the great unwashed to this great pursuit!
Clubs and promoters: Offer more than just what the dealers bring to the table. Plan lectures, displays, invitations to other clubs. Have an active program for young collectors - they bring their parents, friends and grandparents to your show! They represent the long-term future of your organization! Maintain a customer database and send out post cards. Manage the show logistics so that there are no unpleasant surprises for customers or dealers. Advertise in non-traditional places to bring in the new and curious.
Dealers: Send out personal invitations to your clients in the show region. Bring new and interesting material, present it well and price it fairly. Publicize your attendance and your material at every opportunity. (Yes, even on your website and in your paper catalogs if you use them; write about new acquisitions in Mineral News!)
Customers: If you have a good show experience, tell the club/promoter and your favorite dealers. If you have a bad experience, tell all those people as well! Its okay to brag about the sleepers you found, the deals you made, the triumphs of your day. Tell the world, and next time, bring a friend, perhaps one who knows little or nothing about this strange interest you have! Wouldn't it be great to have a regular show partner to travel around with, to help spot those sleepers, to share the joy (and expense) of hitting a few new shows a year?
"Death Spiral of Mineral Shows"
I found it ironic that I pulled the May issue of "Mineral News" out of the mail box as I was returning from attending the World Stamp Exposition held in Washington, D.C. this year. Ironic in that as I read your article "Death Spiral of Mineral Shows" I couldn't help but think that I had just had one of the most entertaining and illuminating show experiences of my life. There are two words I can use that set mineral shows apart from philatelic shows scholarship and sophistication. Allow me to explain and let you, for the most part, draw comparisons and contrasts.
The displays at the World Stamp Expo consisted of large, backed window panes with the stamp album pages arranged in them. Each page had from one to ten stamps or pieces of postal history on them, each minutely described, detailing exactly what you were looking at. There was not one display, not one, where the stamps were just put up and the viewer was left on his own to determine what it was they were viewing. The displays covered the gamut from the esoteric (pane reconstructions of the English Penny Black, the world's "first" postage stamp) to the ordinary (automobiles on stamps), yet each display was meticulously described. The scholarship involved in each of these displays was incredible, especially for the esoteric displays. All the displays were meant to both educate and to entertain, there was something for everyone and for any age bracket. Yes, there was a bit of grand standing from some collectors - the $3 million Z-grill and the $3 million dollar plate block of four Inverted Jenny were there and roundly publicized - but on the whole there was not a separation of "top" collectors from "bottom feeding" low end collectors. Which brings me to sophistication.
There was a very comradely spirit throughout the entire show, from exhibits to dealers to collectors, and this spirit was eagerly passed on to the merely curious. Every collector and dealer was eager to explain the hobby to whomever was interested. And purchasing from a dealer was not a matter of walking up, looking at the top pieces, finding the most expensive and buying those. Oh no! You had to have an idea of what you wanted, have catalog numbers in tow and an idea of what quality you wanted for your purchases. All this requires a bit of research before going in. Don't have a catalog number? All the dealers have a standard catalog of their stock on hand for you to use. Don't understand the quality grading system? Each dealer and collector was more than willing to take time out to explain. How many mineral dealers would do that for an initiate in the middle of a big show? From my experience the answer is not many. There was plenty of space given over to the children, from a mini-playground and model railroad set -up for those too young or uninterested, to an area where actual collectors and dealers were sharing their expertise with the kids on collecting stamps and actually, God forbid, giving the kids free stamps and small albums to start them out. Nobody was too high and mighty, or were they too low on the collector scale, to work in this part of the show. They were getting the message out about their hobby - it's fun, it's educational and, yes, on occasion it can be profitable. There were free copies of the top philatelic magazines and newspapers for the uninitiated public to walk away with. Don't see that much at mineral shows, do we? Sophistication comes in many guises, most them were on display at the World Stamp Exposition.
I haven't done a thing with my stamp collection since 1983, no purchases of stamps, no looking through the albums, nothing. When I mentioned this to one of the dealers there they went out of their way to talk about what has happened in the hobby since then, ask me my interests, talk about what was going on in those particular areas and then he proceed to illustrate his points by showing me some of his merchandise. Okay, sure he was trying to make a sale, but this was a considerable amount of time to spend on someone who he was not absolutely sure was going to buy. For the first time in twenty-three years I purchased some stamps to add to my dusty old collection. I even went to a dealer and bought a blank album binder and blank album pages to expand one of my albums to hold future purchases. The collectors and dealers I met at the exposition got me excited about something that I was sure I would never have an interest in again.
In conclusion, maybe we could learn a few things from how others promote hobbieslbusinesses other than our own. I know I walked away thinking about how the mineral collecting hobby could benefit from what I saw at the World Stamp Exposition.
Paul W. Pohwat
Collection Manager, Division of Mineralogy Smithsonian Institution
P.S. I just read the online Linn's article about the World Stamp Expo (in Washington, D.C.) attendance. Turns out they had 226,000 registered people attending the week-long event! Makes the four-day Tucson event, our showcase event, look like peanuts. I know that toward the end of the show they ran out of badges so registering was a matter of choice. So there where probably a few hundred (maybe thousands) who just walked in and had a good time. We all need to think about this and determine whether we want to share this hobby/science with others or just keep it to an elite few. I am convinced that checking out other hobbies is the way to at least start approaching this very serious problem. One way to do this I think is to start making the "high mucketty-mucks" remember that without new blood coming in at the ground floor their multi-thousand dollar specimens will soon be worth nothing because no one will want them. Just a thought.