In many cities, like Philadelphia, New York and Atlanta, Black Expo USA was an annual rite of spring or summer. Not only was the Expo an ideal opportunity for small black business owners to display their wares to a massive audience at once, but it evolved into a social gathering of the season, often becoming the place to see and be seen.
But after a eight-year run, and debts totalling $466,103 to 72 creditors, the Expo’s national tour is over.
An overpopulated marketplace and rapidly increasing operating costs have forced Expo founder, Jerry Roebuck, to file for Chapter 7 and, as he says, retool his business strategy. While there will no longer be national tours, Roebuck says there are plans for a new company that would produce as many as three shows a year in select East Coast cities including New York and Philadelphia.
Black Expo was the first traveling trade show of its kind that sought to bring African American businesses face-to-face with their customers. It sprouted from humble beginnings, starting with 150 vendors and 20,000 attendees on a New York Pier in 1989. At its peak, it grossed nearly $4 million, traveled to 16 cities across the country and attracted almost 500,000 attendees annually. But now, with competitors like Sisters Expo and Black Christmas Expo, some cities have as many as three competing Expos in a given season. According to Roebuck, this contributed to Black Expo’s falling revenues, which dropped by as much as 40% in recent years.
“Other people looked at our model and said, `I can do that too,”‘ says Roebuck. “So about four years ago, broadcasting companies with a string of radio stations began doing Expos in their markets. And even more shows began to pop up in cities that we didn’t go to, like Orlando and Milwaukee. It was simply no longer feasible for us to go all over the country, unless we wanted to lose money.” He adds that the cost of doing business (like renting out convention venues) rose dramatically over the last several years. In 1991, he rented the Jacob Javits Convention Center in New York City for $66,000. By 1995, the fee had increased to $ 150,000. “But we obviously couldn’t raise our rental booth prices by the same degree to compensate,” says Roebuck. According to Black Expo’s Bankruptcy Filings, the Expo’s annual revenue has dropped from $2.5 million in 1994 to $ 1.4 million last year.
Karl Kani Infinity (No. 25 on the BE INDUSTRIAL/SERVICE 100 list with $59 million in sales) was one of Black Expo’s regular vendors. Company president Karl Kani says it’s unfortunate that the Expo didn’t survive because it was a crucial tool for businesses. While his company usually walked away from the Expo covering only basic expenses, it was invaluable for other reasons. “I never looked at participating in the show by how much it would affect my bottom line. It was about increasing consumer awareness of what my company was doing,” says Kani. “At first, a lot of people