Trade Shows Are Anxiously Ready and Cautiously Optimistic

Judy Williams, Senior News Editor
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Before COVID, 2019 was the best year in the history of the global exhibitions and business events ever, declared David DuBois, CMP, CAE, FASAE, CTA, President and CEO, International Association of Exhibitions and Events (IAEE). DuBois remembers Conexpo one year ago, with 130,000 attendees in Las Vegas, as the last major show that took place in the U.S. “The day after that show shut down, the world shut down.”

And it did. “In fact,” he added, “2020 lost 92% of all trade show revenue.”

Now, with countries around the world beginning to vaccinate their populations, we are as much hopeful as slightly reticent. In North America, DuBois is starting to see show activity anew in Texas, Florida, Indiana and Georgia, but not as much in Mexico and Canada. DuBois says that Asia has a six month lead on recovery. “About 90% of today’s shows are in China, which was the second largest market in the 2019 exhibition industry behind the U.S. They are running about 85-90% of their normal scheduled shows, and as of the 4th quarter last year, attendance is at 60-70% of what it was before COVID.”

Related: From Bad to Better: Lessons Learned from the Pandemic

Kai Hattendorf, Managing Director / CEO at UFI, The Global Association of the Exhibition Industry, Paris, is confident the big organizations will come back to the show floor, but believes the small ones will be the first to return simply because they have to. “They have no alternative; they need the show floor to survive.”

Hybrid Will Not Replace Face to Face

While many live events have embraced hybrid events, there should be no mistaking the critical importance of the return of live, in-person events. “Customers are missing the trade show floors and are very clear about that,” Hattendorf said. “But we have to ensure that we operate the show floors safely to restore the confidence of buyers to return but the learning on the customer side is that you can’t just digitize a trade show.”

And investors believe in face to face, he added. “There can no more of a long-term investment than infrastructure, brick-and-mortar structures. Equity is flowing into venues for expansions and upgrades. We know investors believe in the future of face to face.”

Hurdles Ahead

According to DuBois, more than 75% of corporations still have travel restrictions in place and that will hamper enthusiasm for a return to the show floor. He is also quick to point out that much still needs to be overcome, such as the need for health and safety protocols that include testing, vaccine verification, temperature checks and all the sanitation wipe downs required.

Citing one recent major show that tested before arrival and on site, he said, “The result was a very low incidence of positive rates, less than .05%, but everyone had to be tested every day.” In this example, if it costs $20 a test x 5,000-6,000 attendees, plus staff, it’s going to be very costly. “It’s just not doable for most trade shows,” DuBois admitted.

Speaking with One Voice

 

Hattendorf said one of the most profound lessons of the last year is the realization that the trade show industry has not done its homework in shaping who they are as an industry and in speaking with one voice, and that is now hurting us, he admitted. “The reality is that when malls scream, the politicians let them open, yet meeting venues are the fast tracks to drive economic recovery. And damn, if you can open the shopping malls you can open a conference center.”

Related. New Business Events Coalition Will Unite Existing Industry Efforts

And to that end, the recently created Exhibitions and Conferences Alliance (ECA) will specifically focus on a short- and long-term roadmap for the industry, keeping the existing advocacy initiatives — Go LIVE Together and Exhibitions Mean Business — under the ECA hat. Indeed, the structure of ECA will also allow for new advocacy campaigns as specific needs arise in the future.

From the high points of 2019 to the flatline of 2020, DuBois sees the industry slowly starting to open up. He likens it to us coming out of a major snowstorm: You start to see brightness on the horizon and then a little blue sky and then the sun, so you need to focus on the road, maybe get behind a truck that is making good tracks for you to follow safely behind. “We are anxiously ready and cautiously optimistic,” he said.

Reach David DuBois at (972) 687-9204 or ddubois@iaee.com; Kai Hattendorf at +40 171 5441198 or kh@ufi.org.