Good News on Vaccine Front Spurs Cautious Optimism for Events

Sue Pelletier, Senior Editor
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Travel, hotel, and trade show company stocks all soared on Monday as news that the preliminary clinical trial results of Pfizer’s vaccine indicate it could be up to 90% effective in participants who had no signs of prior infection. While the results are still preliminary and questions remain on what exactly this could mean, trade show giant Informa and Viad, which owns GES, saw their stocks shoot up as in-person event alternatives, such as Zoom, took a double-digit dive.

Do industry insiders share the Wall Street optimism on what this news could mean for trade shows moving forward? In a (qualified) word, yes.

“We are truly encouraged by the announcement that the vaccine in this trial has proven to be 90% effective,” said Charlie McCurdy, CEO, Informa Markets. “This is a positive sign, not just for our industry, but for the business communities we bring together and for the cities in which we host our exhibitions around the globe. An effective vaccine, alongside close partnership with health authorities, governments, and venue partners will help to restore permissions and confidence as we look forward to the return of controlled in-person gatherings, such as we have seen in Mainland China.”

“These initial results are a bright ray of sunshine breaking through the clouds we face today for physical events,” said Gary Shapiro, President and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, which produces the mega CES show, and a TSE Editorial Advisory Board member. “This is a big step given how lopsided the results and big the sample size!”

Similarly, Hervé Sedky, President, Reed Exhibitions Americas & Global ReedPop, RELX Group plc, and a TSE Editorial Advisory Board member, said, “This is obviously very encouraging news for all of us who care deeply about the health and economy of our nation. We are watching these developments very closely and, like our friends in other industries, are eager for a safe and effective vaccine to become widely available.”

Related. Gathering in a COVID-19 World

Added David Audrain, Executive Director of the Society of Independent Show Organizers (SISO) and CEO and Partner, Exposition Development Company, Inc.,The news of the high efficacy of the Pfizer vaccine tests is extremely positive news for the world and will give organizers, exhibitors and attendees some hope that we can return to in-person events more quickly over the next year.”

The mood related to the vaccine news is also decidedly sunny on the international front. “The World Health Organization predicted that the first vaccines would be available before the end if the year — it seems they are right, and that is great news! This can be the moment when the tide turns,” said UFI Managing Director and CEO Kai Hattendorf.

However, he added, “It will take months to get millions and millions of people vaccinated around the world, so we will need to keep pushing for rapid-testing schemes to keep business going in the meantime. And we need to run shows safely, following the good practices and guidelines that we as an industry have developed — like the UFI Global Framework. Our industry has held hundreds of B2B tradeshows around the world in recent weeks successfully, without reported infections.

And, while we in our sector are convinced that people are eager to return to the show floors, and our research shows the same, the reactions on the stock markets show the investors’ confidence that people are eager to resume face-to-face events.”

Hoping for the Best, Planning for Continued Caution
While the news from Pfizer is “welcome and promising,” as Brian Field, Emerald Interim President and CEO and a member of the TSE Editorial Board, said, the executives who spoke with TSE also had a lot of “in the meantime” caveats.

“There are still hurdles to clear before a COVID-19 vaccine makes its way broadly into the mass market,” cautioned Field. “In the meantime, we are taking precautionary measures around the design of our show floors, enacting our safety protocols and evaluating various testing measures to continue building on the customer confidence we have begun to see in our return to staging live, face-to-face events.”

Shapiro also recognized that, while the preliminary news is good, “The vaccine still has regulatory hurdles and we will need different vaccines given the sheer manufacturing and distribution challenge and the possibility that different demographics may respond better or worse to different vaccines.”

“The news of a vaccine with a high rate of efficacy is very encouraging news indeed. By all accounts, the U.S. is currently in a very serious second wave and it is important to get the cases down as quickly as possible, and as we all know, masks and physically distancing ourselves is critical,” said Cathy Breden, CMP, CAE, CEM, EVP/COO, International Association of Exhibitions and Events (IAEE).

“In the Meantime…”
Until we have an approved, effective vaccine in wide distribution, “The most effective tool for going forward with in-person exhibitions, conferences, and events is going to be the availability of effective, low-cost rapid testing,” said Audrain. “When organizers can tell our customers that we will be testing every person coming into an event every day, and only allowing those with negative results to enter, that will create the true confidence that the likelihood of being near a person who is infectious has been truly minimized. In addition, we will need to continue to require masks, extra cleaning and safety protocols, and extra distancing until the spread of the infection has truly been contained.”

Added Shapiro, “It is time the industry agreed on protocols for opening events, including testing, proof of vaccination, and proof of having had COVID (such as testing for antibodies).  More, practices including distancing, masking, and limiting capacity of venues must be in place for the near-term future.”

Related. Major Industry Survey Predicts Fast Return to Live Events

McCurdy also said his company will continue its digital agenda as the trials for this and other potential vaccines work their way through the scientific and regulatory process: “In the meantime, we continue to innovate and develop our digital and data solutions that offer our customers even more opportunities to connect apart from, and alongside, our trade shows.”

“First and foremost, we have a duty of care to our attendees, exhibitors, staff, and all those working the event,” said Breden. “Following guidelines established by the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as having staff trained through the GBAC Technician program, venues obtaining GBAC Accreditation is a good first step. Rapid testing is absolutely necessary, even if we do have a vaccine. I heard from a colleague in China that a baggage handle at an airport tested positive for COVID-19 and within 24 hours, 8,000 people who had been in contact with this person were tested and of the 8,000, five individuals tested positive and were quarantined. This is how to stop the virus.”

Recovery in the Offing?
“While we are already seeing smaller events being held, if mass distribution and vaccination of the population is able to be accomplished in Q2 2021, we will begin seeing larger events in Q4 2021 and into 2022,” Breden predicted.

Audrain agreed, saying, “There is a general consensus that we will see smaller regional and local events coming back first—and some are already happening in small numbers in some cities, states, and countries. Larger, more internationally-attended events are going to take longer to recover because international travel is likely to be curtailed for a longer period.”

Lingering personal and economic concerns likely will still be a consideration, he added. “We will also have to deal with a certain percentage of our customers who will continue to hold off on travel and participation longer than others due to their personal concerns, and of course many businesses have been financially devastated and will have to cut back their own participation in events. Which means that the recovery will be a gradual climb back out of the hole we are currently in. I believe that we will see gradual growth over the coming months, and the speed will depend on the rollout of rapid testing options and the availability of vaccines.”

Still, he said, “Currently in Europe and the Americas, there is still reasonable confidence that regional and local events can go forward in the second quarter of 2021, with variations depending on the rules of the country, state, or city. This news should give more confidence to that schedule.”

“We’re encouraged to see the positive news from Pfizer this week on the progress of its COVID-19 vaccine development,” said Sue Sung of the Go LIVE Together coalition. “While we wait for the global distribution of a vaccine, we maintain that business events can reopen safely in the interim because they are controlled environments that can be designed for social distancing and in accordance with CDC guidelines. We also support the advancement of low-cost rapid testing as an additional tool to boost attendee confidence in returning to live business events.”

Reach Charles McCurdy  at +44 (0) 20 7017 5000 or Charlie.mccurdy@informa.com; Gary Shapiro at (703) 907-7600 or gshapiro@cta.tech; Hervé Sedky at (203) 840-5800 or hsedky@reedexpo.com; David Audrain, (404) 334-4585 or David@SISO.org; Kai Hattendorf at (33) 1 46 39 75 00 or kh@ufi.org; Brian Field at (646) 668-3787 or brian.field@emeraldx.com; Cathy Breden, (972) 687-9201 or cbreden@iaee.com; Sue Sung at Sue.Sung@freemanco.com.