Cahners, Krakoff, Sheldon Adelson, and the Pivot to Tradeshows
Our third excerpt from Steve Maas' biography of Norman Cahners depicts his company's dramatic growth following its first foray into the live events business.
In 2015, journalist Steve Maas published a biography of Norman Cahners, “In a Niche By Himself: The Norman Cahners Story.”
The book, available for purchase here, is a window into a life and era that’s worth spending some time with. Our first excerpt covered Cahners' pioneering of the "niche concept." Our second excerpt took a look at what it was like to work at Cahners Publishing and for Norman Cahners. Here’s the third part, this one detailing the company's anticipation of the growth of face-to-face events. The business imperatives remain highly relevant, and some of the players are either still around or cast a long shadow.—Tony Silber
By the late sixties, Cahners growth thus far had primarily been propelled by acquisition. Now the company began to look for other ways to capitalize on its reach. In April 1969, it began publishing Executive Life, a supplement that was slipped into all its magazines. The new magazine covered topics of interest to all business people, such as personal investment strategies and optimal health care. Cahners hoped to attract advertisements that normally didn’t appear in specialty magazines. The first issue contained an ad that showed a feminine form behind a shower curtain. The product was Penthouse—not as in a top-floor apartment but rather the racy men’s magazine.
“We were getting letters from Kansas and Iowa—all the Christian readers out there, asking, ‘What kind of thing are you trying to do to us?’” recalled Cahners executive Gene Pritchard. Executive Life expired within a few years.
Cahners was more successful in finding ways to package all the data it had gathered on its readership, selling mailing lists and compilations of information drawn from reader reply cards. It also repurposed editorial matter, such as in quarterly magazines tailored for college students.
The company went beyond repurposing articles to expanding on them through a new book division. Its magazine acquisitions had already provided a foundation. For example, Institutions magazine, which was purchased in 1966, published books for chefs, hotel managers and other professionals in the hospitality industry. Like its magazines, the company’s books generally appealed to niche audiences (“Guide to Refractory and Glass Reactions,” “Frozen Foods: Biography of an Industry”), but some sound intriguing (“Private Recipes from Private Clubs,” “Druker: The Man Who Invented the Corporate Society”). Walter Cahners, who had left his brother’s employ for a time to run his own business, returned to head the book division in 1970.
Cahners entered the movie market in 1969, creating the Visual Presentations Division, hiring an executive from a Detroit industrial film production company to run it. But it would be another 16 years before the company would make a splash in the movie business—with the purchase of Variety magazine. More on that later.
In a move that in retrospect caused a lot of head-scratching, Cahners purchased a Boston-based travel broker in 1970. Since so much travel—especially overseas—was business related, the acquisition seemed to be a natural for a trade publisher. In theory, at least. But soon Cahners executives were feeling buyer’s remorse. It began with questions over whether their new acquisition had puffed up its balance sheet, according to Walter. Then came financial hits, such as a a sudden shift in exchange rates that, Advertising Age reported, cost the company $376,000. When tales began to circulate about the travel agency receiving kickbacks from favored airlines, Cahners executives quickly moved to wash their hands of the business. Integrity was their most precious asset.
But while travel never really got off the ground for Cahners, another new venture would soar: the tradeshow business.
The article was just a paragraph long and buried on the business pages of The Boston Globe on Jan. 20, 1970, but it announced a major development at Cahners Publishing—its first foray into the tradeshow business. With the purchase of the New York-based Charles Snitow Organization, Cahners would now oversee national and international expos showcasing automobiles, consumer electronics, food, hardware, photography and home improvement. The International Automobile Show in New York City, for example, drew half a million visitors.
Tradeshows were a natural fit for a niche magazine publisher. “It’s effectively the same business model, just in 3D—face-to-face,” said Skip Farber, who came to Cahners in 1979 with the acquisition of his family’s Security World Publishing. Based in Los Angeles, the company had two magazines, three annual trade shows and a book division.
Before Cahners entered the field, the expo market had been dominated by not-for-profit associations, each representing businesses in a particular industry, according to Farber. As it did with the magazine business two decades before, Cahners set about systematically buying up the smaller operations, while keeping their management intact. If the companies included magazines, like Security World, so much the better. The shows all benefited from being part of a large organization that offered a wealth of resources and expertise. Further, Cahners could boost both crowds and exhibitors at shows by drawing on its deep well of data on subscribers and advertisers.
The similarities with the publishing business didn’t stop there. Expos fell into two distinct categories: those oriented toward business and those toward consumers. Just as the controlled-circulation magazines made their money from ads rather than subscriptions, business tradeshows sold exhibit space rather than charging admission. The consumer expos, which tended to draw much larger crowds, charged exhibitors a nominal amount to cover expenses while making their profit from ticket sales.
“I don’t need this crap.”
By acquiring Charles Snitow’s operation, Cahners Exposition Group gained instant credibility in the industry, Farber said. Originally a lawyer, Snitow launched his first tradeshow in 1946 at the urging of several clients who were in the hardware business. After his company was acquired, he stayed on with Cahners and its subsequent incarnations through the early nineties.
The son of Russian immigrants, Snitow was born in 1907 “on the kitchen table of his family’s apartment in the Hell’s Kitchen section of Manhattan,” according to his 2000 obituary in The New York Times. Farber, who was only in his late 20s when he joined Cahners, recalled Snitow as “a man among boys.” Among the Cahners executives, Snitow must have found kindred spirits. “He was a guy who would fight for principles, policies that were transparent. … absolutely a mirror image of Cahners,” Farber said.
The Times obituary said Snitow was as comfortable dealing with the union workers who erected his shows as he was with the business people who visited them. “If he liked you, he would give you anything; if you were incompetent, he had no patience,” said Farber. Several times he witnessed Snitow walk out of meetings held in his own office when he was being played. Farber summed up his attitude as: “I’m rich, I’m old, I don’t need this crap.”
Bob Cahners, who worked on tradeshows out of Boston, recalled Snitow dressed in a blue blazer and sporting a big bow tie. With his big grin, he looked a bit like Alfred E. Newman of Mad magazine, Bob said. Snitow would recruit the younger Cahners on occasion to judge beauty contests among the models at the New York auto show—a tough job, but Bob was willing to tackle it.
After buying out Snitow, Cahners in 1972 purchased Sherman Expositions Inc., the region’s largest consumer and tradeshow presenter. Its portfolio included the New England Home Show, the International Boat Show, the New England International Auto Show and the New England Sportsmen’s & Camping Show, all staged in Boston. In 1974, Cahners acquired Trade Show Week, the bible of the expo industry, with the acquisition of Show Company International.
Farber arrived at Cahners just in time to see the Exposition Group rocket to the top ranks of the tradeshow market. In his seven years with the group, revenues soared from under $20 million to $90 million, he said. Heading up the division was Robert Krakoff, who had been hired by Cahners in 1973 to manage its exit from the travel business. As expo chief, Krakoff planted the Cahners flag in Britain and Japan with the 1980 purchase of Kiver Communications, which produced the Nepcon (electronic packaging) shows. Two years later, Cahners acquired trade show pioneer Clapp & Poliak, which had a widespread presence in the United States and Asia. With that purchase came Saul Poliak, who was still going strong a half-century after co-founding the company. The 1984 merger with Industrial and Trade Fairs (ITF) further expanded the expo group’s presence in Europe and Asia.
A testament to the enduring influence of the Exposition Group was an article posted in November 2009 on the Website of Expo magazine, in which 10 “ex-Cahns” reflected on its impact on their careers. “Cahners was arguably THE major exhibition player in the ’70s and ’80s, and today, having held a position at the company is somewhat of an industry badge of honor,” Danica Tormohlen wrote in the introduction.
“I hate this man.”
Several times over the decades, one huge expo fell in and out of Cahners’s grasp: Comdex computer expositions. “Buying Comdex would have been a feather in everybody’s hat,” said Farber. “It was one of the most prominent tradeshow businesses in the country.” According to company lore, the Exposition Group had nearly closed a deal in the mid-‘80s. But then the CEO of Cahners’s parent company, Reed International, met Comdex’s irascible owner, Sheldon Adelson, during an airline flight (it’s not clear whether this was deliberate or coincidental). Afterward, the CEO, Peter Davis, told Ron Segal, then the top man at Cahners, “I hate this man, I can’t do this.”
The top man of the successor company Reed Elsevier apparently felt less queasy about Adel- son. In 1995, Walter Cahners got the go-ahead to make another pitch for Comdex. But the Reed Elsevier bid fell $150 million short of the successful $800 million offer made by Japan’s largest magazine publisher.
Ironically, decades earlier, it was Adelson wooing Cahners. “I remember when my dad threw Sheldon Adelson out of the office,” said Mark Goldweitz of his father, Saul. “He was trying to sell something to Cahners Exposition. Sheldon is a tough cookie. I think Sheldon Adelson is 100 percent opposite of what Norman Cahners was. Norm Cahners was tall, handsome, suave, debonair; [had] great manners, great breeding—and Sheldon was exactly the opposite of all that.”
That the two titans never tied the knot may well have been for the best. “There’s no love lost between the personality of Sheldon Adelson and anybody in our camp,” said Farber.
"In a Niche by Himself: The Norman Cahners Story" can be purchased here.