By: Nancy Drapeau, PRC, VP of Research, CEIR
It is an understatement that COVID-19 is wreaking havoc on our industry. As recently published, according to CEIR Q2 Index results, nearly 100% of trade shows from April through June did not happen. They either were postponed to another month in 2020, pushed out to 2021 or later or just canceled. The CEIR June Pulse Poll results tell this story.
Though the situation is dire, organizers are not staying still. They are taking actions to serve their communities as best as they can in the midst of this historic health crisis. I liken these efforts to doing one’s best to ride the COVID-19 tidal wave to get to the shore unharmed where an effective treatment is in place. Once the health crisis is resolved, face-to-face (F2F) events will come back.
Doing a Digital Curve Turn While Waiting for Live Events to Reopen Again
Ok, I’ll stop with my surfing analogies though I think you may get what I mean.
B2B exhibition organizers are tough, they are adept and taking actions to adjust to changing market conditions. This requires agility, as the market conditions can change quickly if new COVID-19 cases flare up again.
A necessary move while trade shows are paused is shifting to digital, aka the digital curve. The CEIR June poll documents a dramatic shift to deploying full virtual trade shows. In the first poll done by CEIR in April, only 15% of organizers forced to cancel reported they had shifted to a virtual trade show whereas in the June poll a nearly three-fold increase is registered, with 41% of those forced to cancel shifting to a full virtual trade show. As well in the June survey, 81% of organizers forced to cancel are offering some type of digital content, signaling what content makes sense to offer in place of a physical event depends on the target audiences served, and perhaps as well, what can be delivered with available resources.
Financial rewards for shifting to digital to-date are low so far, on average gross revenues are 13 percent of the gross revenues a physical event would generate. As CEIR Research Council member Jeff Calore has said, “It is trading B2B exhibition dollars for digital dimes.” All the same, it is an important strategic move to keep engagement going with communities when face-to-face engagement is untenable. And some virtual events have enjoyed tremendous success generating a large volume of registrants. Anecdotally, CEIR has learned that for some virtual event organizers registration has brought in a larger, international audience compared to what would be generated by the physical event. In the virtual space, geographic boundaries do not exist, it offers an opportunity to serve a broader, regional audience, possibly even global.
A larger pool of registrants generates so many opportunities to mine moving forward:
- Attendee acquisition for the next edition of a F2F event
- Prospects for other existing offerings: association membership, subscribers to e-media or print media products, education offerings, etc.
- Franchise an event in a new, international market?
- Other possible new product offerings – e.g. regional F2F events, etc.?
Given heightened activity in the virtual space, CEIR will soon launch a Virtual Event Study that captures baseline data on the rate of virtual events planned or held and profile data on what content is most popularly offered, what has worked well and areas of opportunity to improve moving forward. If you receive an invitation to participate, please do so!
Remember, Trade Shows Are Paused, Not Dead – When Should Your Event Make a Move?
At the same time that the greatest amount of activity today is shifting to virtual, it is important to note that this may largely be a stop gap measure, an intermediary strategy to survive the pandemic. This is not the first time that virtual events became a vogue. CEIR researched this in 2011. There was a period of activity, though over time, while virtual events gained traction in some niches, such as education and corporate events, they ebbed in the trade show space. Today, since technology has advanced, experiences online should be better. Elements of virtual events may indeed have staying power, though other elements may not once physical trade shows are able to happen again. And I believe experimentation with digital will offer insights, ideas on how to more effectively integrate digital into live events moving forward. This just makes sense in an omni-channel marketing world.
Historical CEIR research suggests that the value of attending and exhibiting at physical trade shows will bring people back. CEIR anticipates a rebound. However, COVID will make the rebound period more complex.
Until an effective treatment is in place, reopening events entails more effort. It is possible to do this today and to do so safely, with the right procedures in place and participants following them: proper masking, social distancing and hygiene protocols. Solutions are available now for organizers to train their staff on Global Biorisk Advisory Council® (GBAC) protocols to make their events safe and the same is true for venues, many have or are in process of achieving GBAC Star Accreditation. All organizers need to do this well, so events that happen do so successfully, and safely. Their success will build confidence in the safety of participating in trade shows and will have a positive, cascading effect for other events in the industry. We are all in this together.
In this transitional period, until an effective treatment is in place, it is unclear which trade shows might come back first or which events still on the fall 2020 schedule will happen. Market conditions suggest that smaller group gatherings are apt to happen or reopen first in regions where trade shows are allowed. Those with a more regional audience might enjoy higher outcomes. We have seen such activity this summer in the Dallas, Atlanta and Indianapolis markets. What factors support the opinion that smaller events are likely to open up more quickly?
- Smaller events will be able to meet the group meeting thresholds sooner. In some states, trade shows are prohibited until a vaccine or effective treatment is in place. In others, the threshold isn’t as stringent, organizers need to do their research on what is allowed and plan from there. For more information, go to https://www.nga.org/coronavirus-reopening-plans/
- Events that attract a more regional audience might do better, particularly if it attracts an in-state audience or is in a region that is consistently sustaining a low rate of new COVID cases. State and local rules for reopening may also require out-of-state travelers to quarantine or show proof of a negative test result if they are coming from a ‘hot spot’ state where there is a high rate of new COVID cases. As of the writing of this blog, over 20 states impose some type of quarantine or testing requirements on out-of-state travelers. Organizers need to do their homework. For example, Florida just lifted their quarantine requirement, while others, including my home state of Maine, have not.
- Regional events where participants can drive-in to participate are in line with how the largest percentage of people are most willing to travel. According to the August Travel Intentions Pulse Survey (TIPS), 73% of adults feel safe traveling by car, this is higher than results recorded in July, 67%. Arrivalist data on the US Travel Association website shows that August daily car travel is only .5% lower than the most recent pre-COVID levels registered in February 2020. By comparison, domestic air travel remains low, TSA screenings are 71% lower compared to the same seven day average for August 18 last year. Though these trends suggest a better market for regional events, one hurdle even regional events need to overcome are no travel corporate policies. It is the second most mentioned reason why organizers canceled shows, according to the CEIR June poll. Might attendees travel to a regional event at their own expense even if a company won’t cover the cost? They may do so if the content is compelling enough. In CEIR’s Attendee ROI Study, it was found that 25% of attendees pay their own way to participate in a trade show. So, the no travel corporate policy may not be a hurdle for an event.
These are just a few thoughts on COVID-19, how to help organizers reflect on the best path forward in light of these really difficult times. COVID-19 is just one factor impacting the industry. Those of you reading this blog who are executives at organizations that run or manage events or that provide services to trade show events are invited to join us on 22 September for CEIR Predict. You’ll hear an update from me on the state of the US trade show industry per CEIR Index results and outlook moving forward and also hear from leading experts outside our industry, discussing other major trends that will impact trade shows in the near-term future. Content is always unique, not found at other trade show industry events. You don’t want to miss it! For more information, visit the CEIR Predict site.
In the meantime, stay safe, and hang loose! (ok couldn’t resist ending with a surfer term)