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.

Vacationing Americans and the “Work Martyr Complex”

American workers on vacationI’ve blogged before about the propensity for Americans to forego using all of their allotted vacation time in a given year.

But that was back in 2012, in the waning months of the “Great Recession,” so perhaps one reason for those dynamics was leaner workforces and the need for “all hands on deck.”

A few years have gone by since then, and … very little has changed in these dynamics.

That’s the conclusion in a report released this week by the U.S. Travel Association.  Titled “Overwhelmed America: Why Don’t We Use Our Paid Time Off?”, the study included a survey of ~1,300 American workers and senior business leaders, conducted by GfK.

What the survey found was that 40% of workers fail to take all of their allotted paid time-off.

When asked why this was the case, look at the reasons that were cited:

  • Taking time off will cause my work to pile up: ~40% cited
  • Nobody else can do my job while I’m on vacation: ~35%
  • I can’t afford to take time off:  ~33%
  • I don’t want to be seen as “replaceable”: ~22%

The study characterizes the atmospherics surrounding the phemonemon as a “work martyr complex.”

As U.S. Travel’s chief executive puts it, “busyness” is something Americans wear as a “badge of honor.”

But there may be a bit more to it than that.

The survey also found that two-thirds of the respondents feel that their employer sends mixed messages about taking vacation … says nothing at all about it … or actually discourages people from taking paid time off.

What appears to motivate workers to take their full allotted vacation time is the implementation of “use it or lose it” policies.  When such policies are in place, ~84% of workers take all of their allotted time.

By contrast, for companies that offer the ability for workers to roll over vacation time, bank it, or be paid for time not taken, only about half of their employees (~48%) use all of their time.

The big question is whether most companies truly buy into the notion that taking vacation time is important for overall employee health, well-being and relationships – because the survey found that only a distinct minority of companies (one in four) maintain a “use it or lose it” PTO policy.

Of course, the members of the U.S. Travel Association would certainly benefit if more Americans took paid time off and used it to travel to vacation destinations.   Still, Roger Dow’s contention that “it’s time to start a conversation and reclaim the benefits we work so hard to earn” makes sense to me.  The full report can be viewed here.

At our company, we’ve a “use it or lose it” PTO policy in place for years.  What’s your own situation?