By Douglas L. Ducate CEM, CMP
“It is amazing what man can come to believe when he thinks too long alone.”
William E. Wickenden (1882-1947)1
When I was asked to share my views on the future of the exhibition business after COVID-19, I questioned why me? I do not have a crystal ball that lets me see into the future. The response was: “What you do have is a wealth of information about the industry and many years of experience that include good times and bad. That makes your opinion more valuable than those that lack that experience.” And it is true that I have experienced a lot since I produced my first event … the Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE) Annual Conference and Exhibition in Houston in September 1968.
Not since the Spanish Flu2 more than 100 years ago has the U.S. seen anything like COVID-19, even though it is our 13th epidemic since 1981. The Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR) produced a webinar that identifies those epidemics and the financial and exhibition industry recovery periods for each.
But this epidemic became a pandemic. A pandemic is an epidemic that spreads from a specific country or region to multiple countries or even multiple continents. And that certainly is what COVID-19 did with lightning speed and deadly force. We have never seen anything like it in our lifetimes and have struggled to know how best to react to it and stop the spread.
As this is written, we in the USA are believed to be reaching the peak and as such are beginning to examine how best to emerge from the shelter-in-place orders that blanket the country. Most experts now seem to agree this will be a three-phase process.
- Phase 1 is the lock down we are in now.
- Phase 2 may be called the “semi-normal” or something similar.
- Phase 3 will simply be the “new normal,” whatever that may be.
We know the impact of Phase 1 has been to shut down the exhibition business along with most other businesses. Shutting down the holding of exhibitions impacted not only the organizers but the destinations, facilities, companies that provide services to the events and the air and ground transportation systems that transport personnel and goods. Given the incredibly wide impact of the industry, one would think it would be a candidate for an early restart. But as discussions begin about opening the country back up and “rolling out” Phase 2, exhibitions, meetings, and events will certainly not lead the return and in fact may not even be part of the second phase. Moving from social distancing to large gatherings will likely be the last step in establishing the “new normal.”
The exhibition business is not a bell cow. It is fragmented into industry sectors, and events identify more closely with the industries they serve than with the exhibition industry. There is no single voice for the industry and no giant company to lead the industry. So, if the industry is not going to lead, to whom should we be looking to try to understand the likely future of the industry?
The Ones to Watch
Fortunately, we have some giant businesses that have some of the same “large gatherings” issue as our industry.
- The professional sports teams. The clock is ticking on the athletes that have well-defined “prime” years, and their lucrative contracts need cash flow from crowds and television contracts for the teams to be able to meet their contractual obligations. Baseball and football leagues will likely lead the way back to resuming games with people in the stands with all the other sports supporting them.
- The colleges and universities. Chancellors and presidents have already gone on record as saying they will not resume sports programs unless students are back on the campuses. And while the book is closed on the 2019/2020 academic year, the fall programs are yet to be decided. Expect those decisions to be made early in the summer. Sports has an incredible financial impact on the schools.
- Disney. Through the years they have demonstrated a remarkable ability to adjust to situations. They have introduced innovations from which the exhibition industry has profited. And as they reopen, organizers would do well to have staff visit the parks and learn what new techniques they have introduced to handle crowds, food service, sanitation, ground transportation and safety.
- Cruise Lines. The sales and marketing challenge of our time may be what faces the cruise lines. Making physical changes to the ships will be difficult and reducing capacity, such as some convention hotels are planning, may not be a viable option. If they reduce capacity, they almost certainly will have to increase prices. Families that have saved for a dream of a lifetime cruise may have to spend that savings during the difficult financial times. Watch for changes in onboard services that may be applicable to other venues.
- Chicago, Las Vegas and Orlando. These three cities are among our largest tourism and meetings destinations. Their data will be the benchmark for when America has returned to travel for business and pleasure.
The New Normal
While COVID-19 is a new experience that will require new thinking and different approaches in the future, most of us have experienced the impact such a significant event can have on our business practices. From those experiences we learned it is much better for the industry itself to develop new best practices rather than to have to conform to restrictions imposed by people unfamiliar with our businesses.
After 9/11, security experts came into the convention centers and demanded that doors with panic hardware be locked down or chained. The Fire Marshall then spoke up and explained why the doors must remain unlocked. In the end, safety trumped security.
Another proposed rule was to unload and uncrate all freight shipments outside then just bring exhibit material into the building. That would have doubled tenancy time and been cost prohibitive.
If we let outside agencies dictate how future exhibitions will be run, they will. So how do we avoid that?
Even though companies have some proprietary practices, this has always been a sharing industry. An event copying what they saw at another event is considered flattery. Even with staff working from home, brainstorming is happening every day using technology such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Facetime.
Ideas may surface on floor plan design, hall sanitation, crowd dispersion, food service and a multitude of other creative areas. To borrow a line from the pandemic, we are all in this together and if we share our new ideas and practices, we can develop our own new best practices.
Now in this unprecedented time of working alone, I urge you not to think alone. Use the technology tools to reach out to colleagues with your thoughts. Be bold in your thinking and share your ideas.
Creativity and new ideas are not just the purview of the organizers. While no one knows the overall event as well as the event organizers, suppliers of the goods and services needed to successfully produce the events possess a wealth of information on how things come together, and they should be included in the dialogue. Facilities and suppliers to the industry will be examining their practices and developing creative new approaches and sharing ideas just like the organizers are. There are no boundaries.
Working together we can shape the future and develop the new normal for the exhibition business that will hopefully be safer and deliver better value for exhibiting companies and attendees.
But If the Exhibitions Are Produced, Will the People Attend?
The answer is a resounding yes, but the reasons why will vary.
- Engineering, scientific and health care events are the source of innovation, new products, practices, and procedures. Ideas require examination and challenges from those qualified to evaluate them and question the originators logic and assumptions. This is best done in a face-to-face environment. Peer review is the path to acceptance, testing, and prototypes. These events also provide continuing education units for various certification requirements.
- Markets are exhibitions where orders are placed for future delivery. Examples include apparel, housewares, hardware, jewelry, and many others. Small companies rely on them to get their products to market. They may survive missing an industry event for one year but missing two years could be fatal. Without the exhibition, retail buyers are challenged to identify new-to-market and boutique companies and decide on the latest new products to purchase.
- Flagship events for industries such as home-building, packaging, broadcasting, machine tools, consumer electronics and others bring out their corporate leaders to report the current situation and shed light on the future direction of those industries. That intelligence enlightens suppliers and investors and guides their actions going forward. Press coverage results in significant industry news for the public.
- Consumer events such as automobiles, boats, lawn and garden and home improvement provide a mix of entertainment and enlightenment to guide future purchases. It is comparison shopping at its best, with people learning of the latest and greatest products for their buying consideration and finding suppliers that can do the work.
Most of you can likely add to this list based upon your own events and your own personal experience.
A best case scenario suggests some of the major industry events and several of the large SMERF3 events scheduled for this summer might be held; however, May is already canceled and the airlines have cut schedules through August, so a summer return appears unlikely.
The next realistic window could be September. There are a significant number of industry exhibitions in September, October and November and plans for them should be finalized in July and August. That happens to coincide with the opening of the National Football League training camps, then the beginning of the season. That will be the indicator to watch if baseball has not already resumed play with live audiences.
If the fall window is missed, then January 2021 appears to be the next likely start up time. Much of that will depend upon what happens as we roll out the reopening of America in stages.
Attention is turning now to how to ease current restrictions, but no one is certain what will happen. Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina and Texas appear to be taking the early lead. Other states may wait to see what their experience is before setting their own schedules.
Some predict that since the virus is still among us, easing social distancing will create a second wave with a spike in new cases. Their safe road message is to wait for a vaccine, but that may not be ready until the end of 2021.
During my 25 years with SPE, I observed that while engineers were not particularly good at dealing with hypothetical situations, they were masters at dealing with real situations. In August 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait over an oil dispute. That led to the creation of a coalition force that intervened in what became known as the Persian Gulf War. As the coalition forces moved north, Iraqi forces began to retreat to their homeland in January/February 1991. On their way they adopted a scorched earth policy, igniting Kuwait oil wells and lighting pools of crude oil in ponds and trenches. Some 700 fires were started. Industry experts predicted it could take 7 years to extinguish all the fires.
The first fire was put out in April 1991. The last well was extinguished in November 1991 using a technology that did not exist when the fires were started. What was predicted to take years took nine months as engineers dealt with a real problem.
The current prediction of 18 months for a new vaccine and the lifting of the prohibition on large gatherings is attributed to Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). He has led the American response to COVID- 19. It is important to note in February 2020, Dr. Fauci predicted “millions of Americans will contract the disease and as many as 200,000 might die.” As of this writing, the disease is said to be hitting its peak. The death toll is more than 40,000 and the number infected more than 750,000.
Hopefully, doctors and scientists will prove to be as good at solving real problems as engineers have been. If they are, the race to find a vaccine will yield results much sooner than 18 months, the medical community will find a way to fast track necessary trial testing, and we will experience the dawn of the new normal sooner rather than later.
1William E. Wickenden had a remarkable career in industry at both Western Electric and AT&T and taught at the University of Wisconsin and MIT. He finished his career as president of what is now Case Western Reserve University. He was an electrical engineer and served as president of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, one of the five founding engineering societies in the U.S. His quote at the top of this paper became a popular slogan for the scientific and health care communities that practice peer review and colleague collaboration to validate new techniques, practices and processes.
2The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 killed some 675,000 Americans out of a population of 103 million. This pandemic took place during World War I and the social spread was initially through the military personnel who lived in close quarters. It was an H1N1 virus (see graph 2009 epidemic) that was believed to originate in Southeast Asia. During the war, allied countries censored news they believed could hurt the war effort including information on the flu. Spain remained neutral during the war and the Spanish press widely reported on the flu pandemic. As a result, it became commonly referred to as the Spanish flu.
3SMERF stands for social, military, education, religious and fraternal groups. They tend to meet in off seasons at reduced rates as many of the delegates pay their own expenses.