UNITE 2017, the trade show formerly known as the International Christian Retailing Show (ICRS) hosted annually by the The Association for Christian Retail (CBA), took place in Cincinnati, OH from June 27-30, drawing publishers, retailers, literary agents, authors, and more.

In recent years, the Christian retailing show has struggled to maintain its position as a must-attend event for the industry, but it continues to provide a rare opportunity for publishers to meet face-to-face with retailers, distributors, and authors.

“The show is absolutely trying to reposition itself; it’s an unenviable position to be in. They are scrambling like we all are in publishing,” said Dave Hill, executive director of sales and marketing at Kregel. “But it has remained a constant for international buyers, and it’s a fantastic meeting place that unites people in the industry.”

Paraclete Press, which exhibited at UNITE for the first time in 10 years, took orders and hosted book signings for Everbloom (April) and At Home in This Life (May). “It’s been a good show,” said Sister Antonia, director of marketing for the press. “We came to reestablish relationships, look for new business, and connect with rights agents.”

Curtis Riskey, president of the CBA since 2010, said the organization is not releasing official attendee or exhibitor numbers this year. “Releasing numbers sends the wrong message; numbers mask the importance of attendance­—lessened attendance does not mean lessened importance,” said Riskey.

Attendance has been in decline, dropping 43% from 2014 to 2016, and observations from the floor indicate that 2017’s turnout may have continued to fall. Also, a PW count of exhibitor listings totaled 173; a nearly 14% drop from 201 exhibitors in 2016.

“It felt surprisingly small,” said Dave Lewis, executive v-p of sales and marketing for Baker Publishing Group. “All the years I’ve been doing this, it seems like a small room with very light traffic.”

“It’s always good to come and meet people, but it’s quiet,” said Ken Peckett, sales director at Charisma House.

Larry Carpenter, president and CEO of Carpenter’s Son Publishing and Clovercraft Publishing, has been attending the show since 1987. “The show is a little more compact; it gets a little more compact every year.” He has no plans to stop attending, however. “Our business is tracking the same as last year, and it’s a good opportunity for our new authors to network with bookstores,” he said. “UNITE is more important for us and our authors as a small house.”

Despite its problems, UNITE 2017 remains a place for retailers to peruse books and gift products for their stores, while also networking with other retailers. Publishers also use the show to promote new books and products, and trading partners can come together to do business, address common challenges, and learn.

According to the CBA’s State of the Industry report, released just before the show, 45 Christian stores closed in 2016, while 20 new stores opened, for a net loss of 25 stores. Within the same time period, there has been a 6% decline in sales of Christian retail, according the CBA’s analysis.

To combat declines in the number of Christian stores, last year Riskey introduced a plan for strategic partnerships with studios, artists, and others in order to source products exclusively at CBA stores. “We’ve learned a lot this year, we didn’t see the success we’d hoped for but we have the right strategy,” said Riskey. “Exclusive products going through the brick and mortar stores and driving traffic to stores is effective, and we will have more to come soon.”

A new addition to the show this year was the CBA’s Retail Academy Online, a subscription service offering training to bookstore staff members through workshops at UNITE 2017 and online year-round. “Better training equals better sales; I’ve seen it,” said Riskey, who had 40 people “graduate” from six courses during the show. “We hope more stores sign up.”

As for the future of Christian retailing, Riskey and others interviewed at the show said CBA staff, publishers, and retailers are looking beyond the usual. They’re looking at “omni-channel” customer care—meeting consumer needs in a variety of formats and ways—and outreach to customers via pop-up stores and increased online presence.

“All retailers need new ways to compete,” said Carlton Garborg, president of Broadstreet Publishing. “They need to partner with communities and bring people into stores. The impulse nature to buy is still there, but it’s hard to make people aware of products­—online doesn’t have the same impact as shelves.”

Next year's UNITE will be held from July 8-11 at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel & Convention Center in Nashville, Tenn.