Officials of the International Woodworking Machinery & Furniture Supply Fair-USA know a thing or two about weathering the storm.

Two years ago, a tornado struck downtown Atlanta just five months before the opening of IWF 2008. One of the hardest hit targets was the Georgia World Congress Center, home of IWF. Damage was estimated in the tens of millions of dollars. Crews worked around the clock for 42 days to clean up and extensively repair the massive building. It was good to go well in time for the show.

The current and extended economic malaise represents a different type of storm altogether for IWF organizers. U.S. housing starts are less than one-third of what they were three years ago. Every home-tied wood products market has been negatively impacted- big time - including cabinets, furniture, flooring and millwork. This has translated into fewer orders for suppliers of raw materials, hardware, components, etc.

Equipment Sales Take Big Hit
The prolonged economic crunch has particularly been hard felt by manufacturers of industrial woodworking machinery. Not only have some potential customers gone out of business, many more have dramatically reduced their capital expenditures. On top of this, there has never been a greater glut of used woodworking machinery on the market to compete against. We’ve heard that some of the large machinery companies saw U.S. equipment sales drop by as much as 80% last year.

So maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that five of the woodworking industry’s largest machinery companies say they will not exhibit at IWF this year. Each of the companies — Weinig, Stiles, Biesse, Delmac and SCM — issued personalized press releases stating how the economy, coupled with the expense of setting up large equipment displays at IWF, has made them rethink how they could better allocate their limited marketing dollars to benefit customers.

IWF Carries on
IWF officials have vowed to carry on, as well they should. With approximately 700 contracted exhibitors and counting, the show will be smaller but still offer much to see. While there are many well-known woodworking equipment companies still on the exhibitor list, losing the five major companies and more than 100,000 square feet of machinery exhibits, will make for a different kind of IWF.

This isn’t distressing news for all, but it is for some attendees and exhibitors, as gauged by comments gained from our informal polls (see page 11), posted comments to news articles and blogs on WoodworkingNetwork.com, and private conversations.

Many attendees say they plan to come to the show because there is still more than enough to see and do at IWF. Some exhibitors have said they consider this an opportunity to connect with more of those going to the show, who would otherwise spend significant portions of their time at the exhibit booths of the large machinery companies.

On the flip side, we’ve heard from attendees who are rethinking their plans to attend IWF this August because the main reason they attend is to check out the large machinery exhibits. In a similar vein, some exhibitors have indicated that they are concerned that the loss of the anchor machinery exhibits might put a damper on overall attendance.

Our Take
It is no secret that Vance Publishing Corp., publisher of Wood & Wood Products and Custom Woodworking Business, also owns the two major Canadian woodworking shows. As such, we have a vested interest in the success of IWF, as well as the AWFS Vegas Fair held on odd years.

As you will read in our exclusive State of the Industry report this issue, the general consensus among industry association representatives is that we will see the various markets they represent show clearer signs of improvement in the second half of this year.
As the market improves and woodworking companies regain their confidence, the machinery orders that have been put on hold, will begin to be placed. No doubt many of these equipment buyers, particularly custom cabinet and woodworking firms, will attend IWF to see what best fits their needs.

Conventional wisdom is that large companies believe they either show a full assortment of their wares or not at all. Yet, the companies that choose not to exhibit will miss out on opportunities to connect with thousands of current and potential customers face to face. Egos aside, it would seem that a minimal presence — even if that means displaying no equipment — as opposed to no presence, would make a lot of sense.

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.