Last year was marked by cancellations, postponements, and uncertainty. The trade show segment lost an estimated $14-$22 billion in 2020, according to the Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR).
With the biggest vaccination campaign in history underway, people are ready to abandon their home offices and hit the show floor. Last month construction-oriented World of Concrete kicked off in Las Vegas, signaling the return of large expos in the US and several big shows set to follow.
“We fully expect trade shows to rebound, but at what level remains to be seen,” said Nicole Bowman, MBA, VP of Marketing & Communications, International Association of Exhibitions & Events (IAEE).
According to Bowman, many factors that the world has never been faced with are affecting this rebound, including budgets. In December, FTI Consulting surveyed nearly 500 company decision makers in the US and UK who have direct authority to allocate budget and/or sponsorship funds toward trade show events.
The survey found that in-person event cancellations had caused participants to rethink their trade show budgets, resulting in 58% decreasing their budgets when compared to pre-COVID levels. However, 46% of respondents indicated they plan to increase their trade show budgets to even more than pre-pandemic levels.
How this money will be spent depends on the individual company priorities, but many will likely be adding extra safety measures and even medical staff, along with implementing technology to support the digital components of hybrid events—all unfathomable factors pre-pandemic.
“We believe trade shows are going to evolve into holistic platforms that blend face-to-face, tactile experiences with complementary digital solutions to extend audiences and create additional touch points throughout the year. They’ll also be backed by richer, more connected data that help improve the customer journey and generate higher quality leads pre-show, onsite and post-show,” explained Nancy Walsh, president of North America at Informa Markets. “At Informa Markets, we are investing in the development of Audience Extension and Authenticated Buyer Intent Data solutions that intelligently connect buyers and sellers to build relationships faster, easier, and more effectively. Ultimately we aim to have a holistic portfolio that provides in-person and digital platforms for commerce and connection, backed by data that helps our customers meet quality leads that launch their businesses to new heights.”
In-person, hybrid or virtual?
According to Informa, many of their events are returning to the show floor with a complementary digital event, either in parallel to or shortly after the in-person show.
“Hybrid events or digital components to in-person events will depend on the market vertical a trade show is in, attendee sentiment on being face-to-face and how much content can be readily consumed virtually,” said Bowman. “The pandemic has certainly shown us all the power of human connection in person and how this is simply not achieved well or for the long term via a computer screen.”
Indeed, trade shows provide countless opportunities to connect with others in a way that simply cannot be achieved online.
“Now, more than ever, people are craving interpersonal connection, and networking and relationship building, two things we’ve really missed in this pandemic, are not really replicable in a digital format,” said Walsh. “We have surveyed many of our communities across industries like fashion, construction and aviation this spring and early summer and the resounding response has been an interest in returning to the live event experience.”
Weighing the risk
“Many larger companies will assess the risk to employees when attending future large events, and decisions to exhibit and send staff, hold personal meetings and social events will, in part, be a risk assessment decision,” said Loren Israelsen, United Natural Products Alliance (UNPA) founder and president.
A recent UNPA Covid vaccine survey found that over 80% of the 242 respondents reported that they are fully or partially vaccinated.
"This 'snap shot in time' survey suggests that the rate of vaccination within the natural products industry may be substantially higher than the current national average of around 64% first shot and 47% full vaccination,” noted Israelsen.
Israelsen added that he suspects that trade show attendees will be reassured if vaccination rates are above 75%.
“If we are now post-mask wearing, and working in large social settings of the vaxed and non-vaxed, it will be critical for show organizers to continue to provide all necessary safety protocols and to hit vaccinations levels that are thought to provide a level of safety to attendees,” he said.