In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, where are trade shows headed?

For those of us in marketing and sales – particularly involved in the commercial market segments – the COVID-19 pandemic brought the function of trade show marketing to a screeching halt, as one event after another in 2020 was either canceled outright or “re-imagined” as a digital-only program.

The impact on the convention business has been severe — and it’s had ripple effects throughout the wider market as well.  As Tori Barnes, head of public affairs and policy at the U.S. Travel Association, has noted:

“When a large convention or event is happening, the entire city is involved.  Whole downtowns have been revitalized due to the meeting and events business, and they’ve really struggled this past year.”

But now that COVID vaccines have been approved and are beginning to be distributed, the question is, “What’s the road back for trade shows?”  Will they return to the “old normal,” or are they forever changed?

Those issues were studied recently by the Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR), which posed a group of questions to ~350 executives of exhibition-organizing companies.  The results of the CEIR research suggest that the future of trade shows will likely be a hybrid model of digital and in-person event activities — often as part of the same program.

According to the CEIR findings, “education” was the biggest driver of virtual events run during 2020 – and by a big margin.  When asked to cite the most important reason organizers think that professionals attended their virtual events, the top three responses were:

  • Education for professional or personal development:  ~33%
  • To keep up-to-date with industry trends:  ~11%
  • To fulfill professional certification requirements:  ~10%

Collectively representing ~54% of the responses, it would seem that all three of these reasons lend themselves equally well to digital events as to in-person meetings.  Indeed, in some cases virtual events might be preferable in the sense that digital presentations can be viewed multiple times, if desired, for educational purposes.

By contrast, three other reasons were cited that are generally better-realized through in-person trade shows or conferences.  But collectively they were mentioned far less frequently by the respondents:

  • To see or experience new technology and/or new products:  ~9%
  • Professional networking:  ~8%
  • The ability to engage with experts:  4%

From the vantage point of their experience in 2020, only a small minority of the exhibiting-organizing company respondents in the CEIR survey research reported that they plan to discontinue virtual-event efforts once the pandemic subsides (just 22%). 

A much larger percentage – nearly 70% — anticipate that virtual/digital activities will remain (or become) a bigger component of their events going forward — in other words, hybrid events. 

That would seem to be the best solution all-around for future trade show success.  Offering more digital options within a larger event program will enable people who aren’t able to participate in-person due to schedule conflicts, or simply because of the unease or hassle of traveling, to actually do so.

The experience of 2020’s virtual events also suggest that there are some notable differences in terms of event size and duration — namely, virtual events tend to be smaller in size and shorter in duration than similar in-person events:

  • The average session length of an in-person education event was 70 minutes, compared to under 60 minutes for a like digital event.

  • The average number of hours per day for an in-person event was eight, versus just six for a virtual gathering.

Another finding of interest from the CEIR research pertains to which industry segments the exhibition-organizing personnel consider most open to embracing digital event tools.  More than four in five respondents felt that virtual offerings in the finance/insurance/real estate segments will become an ever-increasing component of physical events in the future.  It was nearly as high – 74% — for events happening in the field of education.

No doubt, we’ll be learning more about the changing dynamics of trade shows over the coming 12- to 24-month period.  As we await the “larger perspective” to emerge, what are your thoughts about how your own personal participation in trade shows will change? Will those changes be temporary or permanent? Please share your perspectives with other readers here.

Convention centers: Where the laws of supply and demand don’t seem to matter.

McCormick Place, Chicago, IL

For those of us in the business world, it comes as no surprise that conventions and trade shows are in significant decline. While they’re not exactly on life support, we’ve witnessed convention attendance drop pretty significantly over the past decade.

In fact, the decline in the United States has been more than 30% — from 125 million attendees in 2000 to just 86 million in 2010.

It’s not hard to understand why. The “shocks and hard knocks” of the economy have contributed, of course. But in addition to this, the ways people communicate have been changed forever by the online/interactive revolution.

With lean staffing — who has time anymore to take four days away from the office? – plus the ability to congregate easily online in virtual forums and meetings, the need for face-to-face interaction just isn’t the same as it once was.

With such a steep decline in trade show attendance, one wouldn’t expect that investment in new or updated convention centers would be high on the agenda, correct?

Think again. Even as cities and their convention centers are competing for a shrinking pool of convention-goers, they’ve continued on an expansion binge – paid for by hapless taxpayers.

You don’t have to look hard to see example after example of initiatives that make essentially no economic sense, being undertaken by cities in a form of one-upsmanship that is reminiscent of that famous Irving Berlin song, “Anything you can do, I can do better.”

At McCormick Place in Chicago – the convention venue everyone loves to hate – the city has invested heavily in expansions and upgrades in recent years. In 2007, a new $900 million expansion was completed … and today McCormick Center is running at 55% capacity. Swell, fellas.

Closer to where I live, Baltimore City built a brand new, city-owned hotel to the tune of $300 million, thinking it would improve the sagging fortunes of its convention center. Opened in 2008, the hotel has managed to lose money in every successive year – as much as ~$11 million in 2010.

So what is Baltimore’s reaction? It’s now considering putting together a new public-private initiative that will add an arena, yet another convention hotel, plus an additional ~400,000 square feet of convention space. The cost in public money? “Only” about $400 million.

From Boston to Austin and from Columbus to Phoenix, public officials dupe themselves into believing that if only they upgrade or expand their convention facilities, they’ll see robust growth that meets or exceeds optimistic projections of increased hotel bookings and other ancillary economic activity.

Time and again, they’re wrong. And not just because of the economy or changing business practices. When every other city is expanding right along with you, no one is going to attract more than their fair share of any additional business potential that may be out there.

I love what Jeff Jacoby, an op-ed columnist for the Boston Globe, had to say about the newest efforts to expand Boston’s convention center (along with a ~$200 million price tag in new public subsidies), even after a less-than-stellar 2004 improvement initiative fell woefully short of the predicted new convention activity.

“The whole thing is a racket,” Jacoby stated. “Once again, the politicos will expand their empire. Once again, crony capitalism will enrich a handful of wired business operators. And once again, ‘Joe and Jane Taxpayer’ will pay through the nose. How many times must we see this movie before we finally shut it off?”

How many times, indeed.