From Bad to Better: Lessons Learned from the Pandemic

Sue Pelletier, Senior Editor
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Just how bad was 2020 for the trade show industry? As a whole, the sector lost 70% of global revenues compared to 2019, said Kai Hattendorf, Managing Director and CEO of UFI, the global association of the trade show industry, who also currently serves as the President of the Joint Meetings Industry Council, during a exhibitions and trade shows panel at Evolve 2.0., an online event organized by Swapcard held Feb. 23-25.

Co-panelist Barbara Weizsäcker, Secretary General of the European Exhibition Industry Alliance, added that 2020 was a roller coaster of a year in Europe, between the pandemic hitting during its busiest exhibition time, venues transforming into hospitals for COVID-19 patients, and the need to develop the health and safety protocols needed to get shows happening again. After a brief respite when some shows were allowed to open after the summer, everything again was shut down in November. “It went up and down, up and down, and we’re tired,” she said. “And we’re hopeful 2021 will be better.”

With the U.S. being the largest market for trade shows globally, the pandemic “certainly had an even bigger impact on us than everywhere else because literally 99% of the industry closed down by the middle of March,” said panelist David Audrain, CEO and Executive Director of ExpoDevCo and Executive Director of the Society of Independent Show Organizers (SISO). “Some of SISO’s smaller members lost 100% of their revenue last year, so it couldn’t have been more devastating, frankly.” The panel was moderated by Julius Solaris, Head of Engagement, Swapcard.

Digital Mostly a Dud

Trade show organizers tried to bridge the gap with digital events, which helped to keep communities vibrant and educated, but “in-person is really the only way you can do business,” said Weizsäcker, adding that Europe was hit especially hard because it hosts many leading events for various business sectors. “We need to bring international travel back — face to face cannot be replaced.”

Audrain said SISO has found some value in hosting online events, webinars, and roundtables, particularly to keep its communities connected. “I’m sure we will see some elements of that continue as events rebuild and restart going forward.” That said, the buyer/seller relationship just doesn’t work as well online. “If you have big equipment shows, people are not going to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a machine that they’ve just seen a picture of. They want to see it, they want to see it run, they want to test it.”

More importantly, online events just can’t replicate “the pure serendipity of the accidental find,” Audrain said. “Nine out of 10 exhibitors and buyers say they find things that they did not plan to find — they find new suppliers, they find new products, they find new contacts — by walking down an aisle. That is very hard if not impossible to replace online, because you can’t plan for serendipity.”

Hattendorf agreed that there’s no corresponding “data-dippity” in digital that comes close. “I see some evolution on event platforms, and I’m looking forward to seeing the creativity of the event tech sector to improve the interaction for transactional business,” but it’s that irreplaceable serendipity that drives especially small and medium companies back to the show floor. “Don’t forget, these are 85% to 90% of our industry’s customers,” said Hattendorf. The challenge will be to find ways to bring people together on site for that serendipitous transactional piece, while serving their content and connectivity needs through “omni-channel” subscription models, he added.

“This is wonderful for the future of the industry because not only will it allow us to recoup what we have lost in revenues, but it also will potentially at least double the size of our industry if we can get a hold of these digital marketing budgets on top of the face to face.” Hattendorf added, “In five years’ time, we will probably say the pandemic was the kick in the butt that we needed to accept that we have to change and evolve. The future will be less square meter-centric and less show floor-centric. It will be more digital, but it will be more successful as well.”

Face-to-Face on the Comeback

There are lots of signs of hope for the return of face-to-face, said Audrain. Events are coming back in the U.S. in general, but especially in places such as Florida. Orlando just hosted Emerald’s Surf Expo, which used AllSecure safety guidelines. Earlier this month, Informa Markets, Clarion Events and Tarsus Group also just held a collaborative fashion show at Orlando’s Orange County Convention Center (OCCC), also under AllSecure guidelines. In Europe, last fall’s Caravan Salon drew more than 100,000 visitors to see 350 exhibitors in 10 halls. “What was interesting was that, while there were fewer on both sides of the aisles, the lead quality was very good,” said Weizsaecker.

Related. Emerald Makes Waves With Surf Expo

For the industry truly to come through the recovery and into the restart phase, government needs to better understand what it is this industry does. “The main thing we’ve learned coming out of this is how poorly the politicians understood our industry,” said Audrain. “The biggest challenge is trying to get politicians to understand the difference between a football game or a concert and a business event. There’s a sheer economic multiplier that comes out of business events that doesn’t come out of other types of mass gatherings. Plus, we manage our audience much better — we know who they are, we spread people over multiple days instead of a few hours — all of these sorts of things make us very different.”

Related. Three Top Trade Show Organizers Fashion a New Collaboration in Orlando

Also essential is the return of worldwide travel. “For the moment, everything is terribly fragmented,” said Weizsäcker. “We are working on harmonizing all these rules so that travel can be resumed both within the EU and globally.”

Related. New Business Events Coalition Will Unite Existing Industry Efforts

Audrain added that one of the biggest lessons learned was, “It’s too late to get a seat at the table if the meeting’s already started. When [the pandemic caused massive disruption in the trade show industry], it took us a long time to get that recognition, that catch-up, in place, hence the need for ongoing permanent advocacy representation.” And that advocacy has to be on the local level, he stressed. “Here in the U.S., most of the decisions affecting our industry are made on a state, county or city level.”

Learn more about the Evolve community here. Reach David Audrain at 404-334-4585 or David@SISO.org; Kai Hattendorf at kh@ufi.org; and Barbara Weizsäcker at (32) 2 535 72 50 or barbara.weizsaecker@exhibition-alliance.eu.