The Downward Spiral and Rebirth of the Houston Gem & Mineral Society Annual Show

 by Arthur Smith and Scott Singleton from Mineral News 10/2006

Reprinted by permission

After reading Tony Nikischer’s article on the demise of mineral shows (Mineral News, May 2006), we thought particularly of the Houston Show. Our show, now in its 53rd year, went from a humble beginning to one of the larger shows in the country with over 10,000 in attendance and 85 dealers. We have hosted two national federation (AFMS) shows and three regional federation (SCFMS) shows. However the 1990s were not kind to our show or to our club, and a variety of factors caused the show to decline precipitously to the point where the club seriously considered cancelling it altogether. We would like to relate this downfall and what the club did to rejuvenate the show. We feel these lessons are relevant to any club show that is experiencing dwindling attendance and revenue.

By the mid-1970s, the September Houston Gem and Mineral Society show rose from a successful local show to an important regional show rivaled in the fall by the Detroit show. There were many important dealers attending the show, and we had an impressive list of others wanting to attend. Attendance regularly was 8,000-10,000. We accomplished this by capitalizing on a growing public need to be educated in all aspects of our hobby. The club was known for its classes teaching lapidary arts and mineral and fossil identification. We had lapidary and jewelry-making demonstrations at the show and a booth that provided gemstone, mineral, and fossil identification.

The 1980s could be considered the heyday of the HGMS show. It was when we moved into venues that eventually allowed us to expand to 85 dealers. Show profits were outstanding, allowing us to purchase our own clubhouse in 1985. Our main concern was to schedule our show so that it did not interfere with the Denver show (which rose in importance to eclipse both the Detroit and Houston shows). The Denver Show had several advantages over Houston and Detroit. It was closer to the West Coast, which many dealers call home, plus by being in the fall, people could schedule a fall vacation in the Rocky Mountains and combine it with the show.

Downward Spiral

In 1988 we moved to Houston’s new, state-of-the-art convention center—the George R. Brown. This was a beautiful facility, and we even got a 50% price break because we were a nonprofit organization. But within a couple of years, we realized that the deal wasn’t so wonderful after all. We were not a large convention that filled hotel rooms, so the City of Houston, who ran the convention center, would not guarantee us a consistent date for the show. Consequently, every year the date varied. This broke the #1 cardinal rule for shows—the date must be consistent each year or the customer base becomes confused and ends up missing the show.

In the late 1970s, Herb Duke’s International Gem and Jewelry Show came to Houston to share in some of the “jewelry” wealth. Because of the abundance of this wealth in the 1980s, he gradually increased the number of his annual Houston dates until he had four in 1989. This caused Houston’s consumers to become even more confused. We slowly lost our identity and were not successful in regaining it. We even tried to become like the “Intergem” show, as it was called, which only made matters worse.

At the same time as all of this was happening, we started worrying about our clubhouse’s 10-year mortgage note. This mortgage note had a huge balloon payment when it became due, and in the early 1990s the club’s Board was singularly focused on making enough money to pay this balloon note. They forgot that a healthy show both generates income and keeps everyone happy—including dealers. Instead, their focus was on getting as many dealers into the show as possible. This they certainly did, even while attendance began a sustained drop-off.

Thus, a show that attracted over 9,000 in 1990 became a show that attracted 1,825 in 2000 due to a combination of the three factors listed above. Once the attendance numbers began a steady drop, so did the number of dealers willing to participate in the show. It was an endless cycle, and it was so bad that we had to have two shows in 1995 and 1996 just to make enough money to pay the bills. The high-intensity campaign during those two years succeeded in putting on four very professional shows, but it failed to attract many dealers or attendees. We survived financially, but not by much.

Rejuvenation

One of us (Scott Singleton) was made Show Chairman with a mandate to make a more successful show. The first thing Scott did was to find a new venue, the Humble Civic Center in the northeast part of Houston. The advantages soon became apparent. We could lock in the date of our show, parking was plentiful and free, and the management of the center was extremely cooperative. A new attitude was also initiated whereby we were more concerned about putting on a successful show than in making money. As part of this new philosophy, there was an emphasis on the youth, and we instituted an educational program for them on Friday. We also developed a Scout Geology Merit Badge program to be held on Saturday and Sunday of the show. We reinstated a policy of providing snacks and drinks in a hospitality room and a free meal to dealers and show workers on setup night.

Our services don’t stop there. We continued our policy of having working demonstrations of lapidary and faceting techniques, and we decided to rejuvenate a successful community service from the old 1970s shows: free mineral, gemstone, and fossil identification. Another consideration is amateur collectors—for them we have a swap area where they can sell their surplus for swap dollars that must be spent with our dealers.

Houston has a large and diverse population that includes a large number of resident earth scientists, so we do not have to worry about the number of hotel rooms our attendees use. We now slant our show to the city and do not try to bring in visitors—though they are certainly welcome.

The new philosophy has reaped huge benefits. Attendance was over 8,000 in 2004. Of that number, over 2,700 were public and private school kids and home schooled kids attending our educational program on Friday, and over 500 were Scouts getting their Geology Merit Badge. We do not have figures for 2005—Hurricane Rita came through on our show weekend, resulting in the complete cancellation of our show while two million Houstonians jammed the freeways trying to get out of its path. But we’re not concerned. With a successful, winning philosophy, we will bounce back and continue our steady expansion into one of the largest and best shows in this part of the country.

Recommendations for a Successful Show

A consistent date and venue is an absolute must. We have first-hand experience in the effects of ignoring this cardinal rule. The basic principle is that the public will come in much greater numbers if they know where and when the show is held each year. If they become confused because of changes, you’ve lost them.

Develop a sensible business plan for your show. In our case, the primary element of our “sensible business plan” involved paying close attention to our customer-to-dealer (C/D) ratio. The commonly accepted C/D ratio for gem shows is about 100. This ratio will give dealers as well as the show host a fair chance at making money. The mistake our club made was in believing that dealers represent the club’s profit from a show. This is not true—the general principle states that dealers pay for the production of the show while attendees provide the host’s profit. If the show is not attracting enough attendees, then everybody suffers, thereby providing ample incentive to improve.

Make the show interesting. Our philosophy is that just having a bunch of dealers at a show does not make it interesting. Of course, dealers are and will remain the main reason many people will come to a show, but these days a show needs far more than dealers to attract a broad range of the general population. We have adopted the premise that if we offer information, demonstrations, and education, far more people will be attracted to the show than if we just offer sales of jewelry, minerals, and fossils. This plan has indeed borne abundant fruit—we are continually told how families can find something for everyone to do and to have fun while they’re doing it. Even those with only a passing interest in earth science or rockhounding and with no interest in purchasing a mineral specimen can come to the show and still leave with more than they had when they came. Everyone appreciates that.

Publicize as much as possible. This mantra has always been true and will always be true. In our case, as we continually cycled through different show committees, we found ourselves continually relearning what works and what does not work in our area. After we succeeded in stabilizing our show and our personnel, we found that, surprisingly, the main forms of advertising most people think of (TV and the primary newspaper) are too expensive to use unless you have lots of money and can saturate them with an ad campaign. In our urban area, we cannot afford to do this. Therefore, for major media outlets we rely on public service announcements (PSAs) and on creating enough excitement to draw them to us. This only works if we have something exciting to promote, which we believe we do, and we are not shy about letting them know about it.

For our main publicity expenditures, we rely on alternative publicity sources such as local newspapers (they are much more apt to carry our stories and are cheaper for running large ads), professional societies which have a membership that is predisposed to being interested in our activities (such as earth science or jewelry trade societies), and outreach activities around the area. Examples of this are trade shows, educator’s conventions, gem club shows, Scout conventions, and professional conventions by host societies that are related to earth science. These outreach activities have been gold mines for generating potential attendees to our show and attracting new club members. It also helps us maintain a large database of names that we use for our show postcard mailings.

We even turned a liability into a benefit. Having our annual show in the peak hurricane season is risky (as we found out with our cancelled show in 2005), but we turned that into a benefit by advertising on The Weather Channel as a crawler on the local forecast during the month prior to the show. This is the highest viewing time for that station in the Houston area—and thus our crawler is seen by over a million people. It has been very successful for us—assuming we don’t get hit by another hurricane on the show weekend!