A nagging spouse, screaming kids, a jerk of a boss, needy employees, constant phone calls, the barrage of e-mails and a challenged company - who doesn't want to escape by going to a trade show or convention?

It's almost like a vacation - even with your BlackBerry on you.

The days are filled with meetings, the nights swapping gossip - whoops! I mean important information- with your peers over dinner and wine.

Soon life is good.

Garçon, une autre bouteille, s'il vous plait.

Challenging landscape

Yet unless something vital happens - like buying needed equipment or selling a new client - conventions and trade shows almost always look like boondoggles.

With all due respect to trade shows, if the past is prologue, 2011 will be as taxing as 2010, meaning the newspaper industry's revenues - stunted by the economy, how it sells advertising, its floundering print edition, other websites and potentially new competition - diminishes the affordability of capital purchases.

"Flat is the new up," said Audrey Siegel, co-founder, president and director of client services for New York-based advertising agency Targetcast tcm, saying her clients, because of economic concerns, will spend the same amount on media next year that they're spending this year - a sentiment echoed around the country.

The biggest threat to newspaper advertising is "the pervasiveness of online and mobile media, consumer habits and fragmentation ... and localization of news content online among big portal players, like Yahoo and MSN," said Petra Arbutina, executive vice president and director of contact strategy at Brunner, a Pittsburgh-based advertising agency.

Even newspaper websites see intensified competition.

"They have travel, health and finance sections, but I can find digital verticals with more content," said Steve Minichini, Targetcast's co-president and director of interactive marketing.

"Newspapers need to realize we can get (their website user) any number of ways," said David Jamison, of San Francisco-based advertising agency Jamison-McKay. "You can get them vertically because I can buy up to 20 real estate specialty sites."

2011: What's next?

Where are next year's ad dollars going?

"Search (aka Google) is a big factor," said Bill Reynolds, vice president and director at Greenville, S.C.-based Erwin-Penland. "There are local website offerings, including radio and television, localized advertising opportunities on Yahoo or AOL networks.

There are many ways to reach a local audience online, he says, without heavily buying the local daily's website.

Indeed, Web metrics firm comScore Inc. says that with the exception of The New York Times - with nearly 69 million unique monthly users who devote about 19 minutes of their time to the site each month - more people visit walmart.com than any other newspaper website.

The retailer attracts nearly 35.5 million unique monthly visitors each month, comScore says, with people hanging around the site for about 16 minutes each month.

What would happen if companies decided to advertise at Wal-Mart instead of in the local newspaper?

"We would definitely be open to purchasing ad space on non-media websites if we had the data to show that they could be an effective way to engage a client's target audience," Arbutina said.

While website paywalls shrink an audience, "It's also a more credible audience," Minichini said. "It's an audience that truly wants the content, which could make for a good marriage of the ad."

Still, the printed newspaper suffers.

"With less content today, there is a merging of sections, making it less desirable for advertisers," Arbutina said.

"Newspapers have steadily raised their prices over the last 10 years as their print audience has shrunk," Jamison said. "On a cost-per-customer basis, we just can't justify that to our clients."

Yet the print paper still attracts an audience with a better income and education, Reynolds said. "It also imparts a serious image for an advertiser, especially banks, and it trained consumers to shop supermarket inserts," he said.

One way newspapers can restore their selling power is to do something they refuse to do - invest in their product - and in the opinion of one marketer, newspaper ad executives should stop pitching demographics during sales calls.

"I can read the media kit," Siegel said. "I want to know the commitment the paper is making to create a worthwhile experience for the (print) reader and the consumer so my ad is relevant.

"I want to know about the commitment to the news and to understanding reader and community needs and how the newspaper is providing that," she added.

It's the content, stupid. Readers recognize an anemic paper - and so do advertisers.

Publish a paper that people want to read, and buy, and the ads will come. Publish something that's lighter than a feather and ad agency execs might just not place an ad in your paper. The last thing they want to be is your last client.

Something to think about while in Chicago and Hamburg.