The ghost of trade shows past appeared to be banished from this year’s Expo! Expo!, held virtually for the first time December 8-10 by the International Association of Exhibitions and Events (IAEE). Yes, there were realities of the COVID-19 pandemic to take into consideration, not the least of which was moving Expo! Expo!, which was originally scheduled to be held in Louisville, Ky., to a fully-virtual format powered by Swapcard with AV production by SmartSource and video production by CNTV.
The online-only event still drew 102 exhibiting companies and 1,254 attendees, and the virtual Expo! Expo! marketplace resulted in almost 2,500 connections between exhibitors and attendees, and more than 22,000 messages sent in total. Each exhibitor made an average of 41 new contacts. There also were more than 10,000 individual registrations for the educational sessions, and 8,000 unique session views.
Related. IAEE’s Expo! Expo! Goes All Virtual
These metrics led IAEE President and CEO David Dubois, CMP, CAE, CTA, FASAE to say, “We are incredibly pleased at the result and grateful to the show partners who collaborated with us to create such an outstanding experience.” The 2021 event will be held in person in Philadelphia December 7-9; Louisville will host the show December 6-8 at the Kentucky International Convention Center in 2022.
But overall, show organizers did not spend much time lamenting over all that has been lost this year as the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out most of the industry’s 2020 business. Instead, it was the spirit of trade shows present and future that guided almost all of the show’s 100-plus-session agenda, which acknowledged the realities of today with sessions on maximizing the value of digital events and virtual event production, while highlighting ways to move forward through the remainder of the pandemic and onto a new normal way of doing business as the COVID vaccines that will allow in-person trade shows to restart begin to become available. Sessions were provided as a mix of live and pre-recorded content, followed by live Q&As to enable attendees to engage in relevant discussion with each other and with speakers.
IAEE also focused much of the content toward trade show executives leading the way into the future with its Executive Experience. Sponsored by Synchronicities, the track followed the lead of IAEE’s upcoming Future Pathways reports, designed to educate industry stakeholders on the forces shaping the future of exhibitions, as well as actions they can take now to prepare for the future. It also included a number of sessions geared toward fostering executive’s personal and professional growth, including communications during challenging times, diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) — the subject of the second general session keynote address — and how to navigate your career in today’s uncertain world.
Learning From Today to Reopen Tomorrow: Safety First
The agenda was studded with sessions on what facilities and show organizers who are currently holding events are doing to provide safe trade show environments for attendees and exhibitors, as well as what will be required for the future.
During a session on how to work with partners to safely reopen trade shows, Rick Simon, Founder, United Service Companies, outlined how facilities and contractors have developed their protocols based on the GBAC STAR program, an accreditation program that assesses cleaning and disinfection practices, and infectious-disease prevention, created by the Global BioRisk Advisory Council (GBAC), a division of ISSA, the worldwide cleaning association.
“It made people safe, but just as important, it made them feel safe,” he said. “That feeling of safety is what’s going to get people back to business and restart our industry.” Simon, who advocated with industry associations, including IAEE, to get them on board with GBAC STAR, explained the evolution of the program, which had already been in development at ISSA pre-pandemic. Developed for facilities, convention centers, stadiums, hotels, and other public venues, such as restaurants and airports, the GBAC STAR program assesses a facility’s preparedness and provides staff with training for bio-risk prevention and containment. The program also establishes a framework for communication and awareness best practices. It now has been adopted by thousands of facilities throughout the world. (See a directory of GBAC STAR-accredited venues here.) The latest step, he said, was including products in the accreditation program. Seeing the GBAC STAR logo on products, he said, “Will completely tie in the circle of service.” He also presented a case study on the measures taken to keep attendees and exhibitors at the 61st Annual Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show (FLIBS), which ran October 28-November 1, safe and healthy.
Elaine Williams, CEM, Director of Sales with the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, also spoke during the session about the measures her GBAC STAR-accredited venue had put in place. While it was not yet hosting live events, the center collaborated with New Orleans and Company, general service contractors including Freeman and GES, and the venue’s food and beverage provider Centerplate, to plan a mock event to show how they could keep people safe.
During the meeting with city and state officials, one key thing, she said, was to bring in an industrial hygienist and epidemiologist to talk about the science behind the protocols the venue and its partners had put in place. The mock event walked the officials through how they would handle all aspects of a potential trade show, from the area where they would do temperature checks, to how the escalators were being cleaned to an exhibit area, including an exhibit service area and a food and beverage station, all the while having the health experts explain how what they were doing would keep people safe.
“The next day the city updated its website to include trade shows in what the city would allow,” Williams said. While COVID is now resurging and things may change, “The city and state knows and trusts that we can do it safely.”
In another session, Lisa Miller, Director, Events, and David Solsbery, Vice President of Creative & Marketing at Hargrove, Inc., shared their on-the-scene experiences since COVID-19, including with last summer’s Democratic National Convention.
“We had to create the playbook for doing a hybrid event with the DNC, everything from PPE to social distancing to testing. We created testing centers so we knew everyone was safe, and a COVID task force to work with the DNC to basically learn how to be together.”
The following are their pillars for safer meetings:
- Establish very clear traffic patterns for how people walk and are seated. One-way 20-foot aisles make the most sense in convention centers, where everything is on a 10-foot grid.
- For small meetings, put aside extra rooms as a contingency plan. Capacity can change from 250 to 50 people overnight with this surge.
- Rather than doing one large event, use multiple rooms in a single venue, or multiple locations. Some organizers are using multiple TV studios around the country. “You can have 25 people in 25 different venues — the world is your oyster when it comes to technology,” said Miller.
- Consider work pods, where the same group stays together and moves to the various rooms at an event. If someone becomes exposed to COVID, just the people in that pod will need to quarantine versus the entire team.
- Come to a shared understanding about cleaning between the venue partner, client and location, agreeing upon the level of cleaning that is expected and who is responsible.
- Establish rules about how the team will stay safe on site, everything from clearly defining roles to providing PPE and disinfectants to enforcing masks.
“The best way to learn is trial and error,” said Miller. “Doing events is what will make you better at doing events.”
Glimpsing Future Cool
As part of the Asia IAEE Hybrid Forum session, which included prerecorded content from the event held at the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore in conjunction with the Asia-Pacific region’s first international trade show, TravelRevive, Veemal Gungadin, CEO, GEVME & VP Digital & Innovation, SACEOS; and Wee Min Ong, CEM, VP Conventions & Exhibitions, Marina Bay Sands explored the future of hybrid events.
And we’re not just talking Zoom meetings and green screens — the reality of the pandemic has pushed emerging technologies into the forefront, they said. “The adoption of technologies of the future itself is a game-changer. Lots of the technologies that we are adopting, in fact, have been around for the longest time — like mixed reality, augmented reality, virtual reality — we’ve been talking about that for a long time. But now we’re starting to see its practical usage in the forefront,” said Gungadin.
Mixed reality, including augmented and virtual reality technologies, can enable attendees to interact with the speaker, and the content, in real time. Wee Min wowed with an example — a hologram of the globe projected right above his hand. “This is the future of storytelling,” he said. “We feel very strongly that if we use mixed reality in the right way, we will see our stakeholders, our clients, our corporate companies be able to tell their story in a more compelling manner.”
Immersive 3D experiences also can bring virtual booths to new life by making it possible for people to physically experience an exhibition, and even interact with exhibitors digitally, they said.