I suppose the discussion about how hamfests are faring is being kindled by the world’s largest—in Dayton, Ohio, this week—and how the gas prices and other changes in the hobby will affect attendance there. The general feeling is that eBay along with the ability to buy and sell equipment on the Internet has crippled the traditional ham gatherings. Stratospheric gas prices and other travel expenses are contributing to their demise. Many are struggling. I don’t dispute that times have changed, that some long-running hamfests are either gone already or fading fast, but I also see some events that are still thriving.
My observation—from a very narrow perspective, I grant you—is that small swap meets, pulling from a closer region, and offering lots of socialization and a decent boneyard, will continue to prosper. One reason is that a single bad year, due to weather or energy prices or some other unforeseen factor, doesn't put them out of business. Their investment is small so their risk is, too.
I remember back in the 1970s when the Birmingham Amateur Radio Club had designs on becoming the premier hamfest in the rapidly growing Southeast U.S. But we also realized that with the high rent and overhead for a suitable venue, the dependence on a few major manufacturers and suppliers to show up and support the event, and the other considerable expenses necessary to market such a major gathering, we risked bankrupting the club if something outside our control happened. A spike in fuel costs, a bad weekend of weather, somebody else in some other part of the country deciding to usurp “our” weekend—any of those things could put us out of business. Or a bunch of amateurs—“amateurs” in both radio and convention marketing—might simply not be savvy enough to break even, much less turn a profit.
The type of gatherings I'm thinking of that seem to do well, even with gas approaching $4 a gallon, is like the one at Dalton, Georgia. This is a prime example of a successful, flea-market-driven gathering. Oh, I believe we will continue to have several "national" events—Dayton, Orlando, Dallas, Visalia, and, yes, Huntsville, AL—keyed more to time of year so as not to conflict with each other and within short driving distances of a lot of people. There manufacturers will exhibit, key personnel from major vendors will be present, and important, personality-driven forums will be held. There will be less opportunity to socialize and flea markets will not be the primary draw (though both will continue to be factors). Discount dealers will offer bargain "show specials," distributors of parts and accessories will thrive because attendees can shop for all those odds and ends in one place, manufacturers will debut new gear and support loyal customers and early adopters, and we will all have the opportunity to learn from experts and take in top-line presentations by the "stars" in our hobby.
That certainly seems to apply to hamfests.