What’s Next for the B2B Exhibitions Industry?

What’s Next for the B2B Exhibitions Industry?

By: Brian Casey, CEM, Executive Director, International Textile Alliance

Recently, I was approached as past CEO of the Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR) to write a blog on the future of the events industry following the article written by Doug Ducate, my predecessor at CEIR. Having followed Doug as CEO, who was the CEO with CEIR for many years, I was reminded how challenging it is to walk in his shadow after reading the well written article on the future of the B2B exhibition industry in light of the pandemic we are facing.

Trying to predict the future of the U.S. B2B exhibitions in this day and time is impossible due to the global economic impact of COVID-19 coupled with the social unrest resulting from the killing of George Floyd and many other Black Americans. The ongoing protests are part of the appropriate push for change, concerns have arised that this may also fan the flames of future infections. At the same time, states are beginning to reopen giving some individuals a false sense of confidence that they can return to their old normal behavior that lacks regard for safety, such as wearing masks and physical distancing. Recent reports indicate a spike of infections in certain areas of the country and the future only knows how severe the spread will continue until they identify a vaccine. We do understand that the virus will not simply go away on its own. However, following certain safety protocols has shown that it can be managed while allowing the economy to reopen. It certainly would not be good for anyone should this begin to spin out of control.

That said, we also have our eye on the economy, unemployment and performance of the stock market. The recent news of furloughed workers returning to work is great to see, but we know that some may not have a business to return to. Government stimulus has helped, but may not be enough for certain small and medium size businesses, should another tightening occur due to a surge in future infections. We learn more every day and are encouraged that the positive progress continues.

Those that follow the CEIR Index know that the B2B exhibition industry’s health is directly correlated to the performance of our economy. The CEIR Index tracks the performance of 14 business sectors of the exhibition industry and provides a historical report on how they perform against the macro economy in those sectors. It will be interesting to learn which sectors are most impacted by our economic performance. Unfortunately, with the exhibition industry temporarily being disrupted, data on net square footage, revenue, attendance, and number of exhibitors simply will not be readily available. If you do have data available, please consider using the Event Performance Analyzer, which will greatly contribute to the next edition of the CEIR Index and help the industry truly understand the impact of COVID-19. I would suggest that it will still be very important to stay close to the reports and projections of our economy as much as possible. The economy is always a leading indicator along with unemployment reports.

It’s interesting to monitor how states and cities are managing reopening plans. Las Vegas and Orlando among other cities are reopening exhibition centers and preparing to host exhibitions very soon. The governor of Illinois, however is restricting any exhibitions from opening until phase 5 is reached, which won’t happen until a vaccine is found. The governor’s guidelines have led to the cancellation of International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS), the massive machine tool show which was scheduled to take place in September at McCormick Place.  Which cities open their exhibition centers or not play an important role in the future health of our industry and yet the obvious issue with the safety and security of your exhibitors, their customers, your staff and your industry partners must be at the forefront of any and all future planning. While safety is paramount, being too conservative will stifle business which can also be damaging. North Carolina pretty much lost the Republican Convention because the governor insisted on some strict social distancing and mask requirements. No one knows if the governor was correct or just being too conservative. Time will tell, but there is simply no definitive playbook for any of us.

I’ve watched with interest how most businesses have shifted to the work at home model to keep employees safe. Eliminating the commute and the use of Zoom or similar technology for meetings has changed how business will be conducted in the future. There are companies of all sizes that plan to continue with this operating model. Many have realized that for some workers, working from home has increased productivity. Some executives who have travelled extensively in the past may find that future travel may not be as necessary as it once was.  Certainly, they will need to get on planes to see customers, but a recent article in the Wall Street Journal quoted numerous road warriors saying that zoom meetings have worked as well, if not better, and save an inordinate amount of time normally invested in travel for their meetings. Some are predicting they will not require as much plane travel as in the past using technology to sufficiently replace the need to travel.

However, I honestly doubt this trend will reduce the importance of exhibitions, as the efficiency it brings with numerous face-to-face meetings over a short period of time remains far more effective than any technology. It’s still important to monitor this shift in business behavior as we seek the new normal whatever that may be.

Safety and security for our events are the primary areas of focus for organizers requiring collaboration with exhibition industry partners, facilities and organizers. Training will be paramount. If staff is well trained and feels safe, they will help present the same sense of confidence of safety to the attendees and their customers. Effective communication of all safety measures will make the difference between decisions to attend or not. From what I have read, facilities throughout the country have been preparing for this and those with exhibitions during the early stage of reopening will teach us quite a bit of what works well and what is no longer necessary. Recently, IAEE has released a white paper, Essential Considerations for Reopening Exhibitions and Events, that has many useful ideas that could be implemented for future shows. Physical distancing will be paramount for the foreseeable future and structuring appointment-based models, wider aisles, touchless registration among numerous other practices are already in play. This will not go away for some time and while the need for all of this eventually will, some of it will remain part of our industry for years to come.

I echo Doug Ducate’s message that the exhibition industry has been a sharing industry that borrows great ideas from one another. We are a collegial industry that is happy to share those great ideas and we have always learned best practices outside of our industry from retail, sporting events and other large gatherings.

While I cannot predict the future, I can say is this… we will continue to be supportive of one another by sharing ideas and solutions that work. It is the way that it has always worked and it is how we have all managed to successfully grow in our jobs. You will not have to figure this out on your own. There is always someone willing to share with you and help. There is no doubt that we will learn more tomorrow than we know today. Staying informed should be a daily occurrence and staying connected with industry organizations such as IAEE, CEIR, SISO, PCMA and others that continue to provide education, networking and advocacy are always solid resources. Yes, this is a challenging environment but exhibitions are here to stay. We are all in this together and together we will find the best way to our new normal.




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