Meeting Mentor Magazine

May 2024

Trade Show Recovery Is on the Way, But Challenges Remain

Cathy Breden, CAE, CMP, CEM, Executive Vice President & COO, International Association of Exhibitions & Events (IAEE), and CEO, Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR); and Randy Acker, CEM, President, EXHIBITOR Media Group and Adjunct Faculty at Bemidji State University

In January 2020, the trade show industry finally was forecasting moderate growth from $101 billion to $105 billion after a long, hard recovery from the ravages caused by the Great Recession of 2009. Then along came COVID-19, and the impact of trade shows on the U.S. economy plunged to $24 billion in 2020, said Cathy Breden, CAE, CMP, CEM, Executive Vice President & COO, International Association of Exhibitions & Events (IAEE), and CEO, Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR) during a Global Meetings Industry Day (GMID) session held by Meeting Professionals International.

“The only reason we were able to get to $24 billion was because of a few very large events held in January and February” before COVID-19 shut-downs began, she said. While consumer sentiment and the vaccine rollout are positive signs for recovery, new COVID variants are a wild card. Still, should the current trajectory hold true, Breden said we’re still on track to begin to see recovery in Q3 and Q4 this year, and should be down just 10% over 2019 by 2023 — a much faster recovery than the industry experienced after the Great Recession.

Exhibitors Anticipating a Fast Return

Randy Acker, CEM, President, EXHIBITOR Media Group and Adjunct Faculty at Bemidji State University, who co-presented at the session with Breden, said results from five surveys his group has done, including one that found that as of March 2021, 68% said of corporate and association exhibitors surveyed said they anticipate returning to face-to-face marketing by October 1 this year; 79% said they’d like to participate in a rescheduled event.

One reason for this optimism is a rising believe on the part of corporate marketers that their C-suite understands the value of face-to-face marketing. Forty-three percent said this was the case in the latest survey, with 34% saying they still weren’t sure.

Safety was the number-one hurdle to returning to trade shows, he added, with 49% saying enhanced cleaning and masking requirements would be key. Vaccination also was high on their “must” list, with 48% saying they’d be more likely to return to trade shows when 75% of the population had gotten their shots. An equivalent number (47%) said proof of vaccination also might be helpful.

On the downside: 75% said they still have corporate travel bans in place, and almost half don’t know when that’s likely to change, Acker said.

Breden added that 41% of exhibitors had canceled events that had been scheduled from January to April this year, while 45% are postponing and 64% will continue with digital offerings through 2021.

“We also know that online events are here to stay,” Breden said, though it will depend on which industry the show organizers serve.

Digital Events Still a Struggle

However, a deep dive into the CEIR Index research shows that event organizers are still struggling with digital events, especially when it comes to creating engagement between exhibitors and attendees and delivering ROI — especially so now that data privacy rules make it difficult to provide the data exhibitors crave.

Acker added that while the content side is an easy pivot for most, e-commerce has been disappointing for many exhibitors. In fact, he said, 86% of respondents said digital trade shows delivered fewer leads for their sales and marketing objectives — and 11% said the digital trade show holds zero value for them.

“One respondent said, ‘My virtual trade show was virtually worthless,’” he said.

While they are less expensive generally speaking, 50% said digital trade shows also were more expensive than they anticipated. More than half (56%) said their budgets were returning, but likely not to pre-pandemic levels. And 34% said they wouldn’t commit to participating in any event until four months out, creating cash-flow issues for organizers. Part of the issue is a fear in the viability of association-based shows, something 83% said was at least of some concern.

“This is a cautionary tale to the organizers out there to really connect with your exhibitors now,” said Breden. “You need to make sure that you are helping them to recover as well.”

On the plus side, 57% said they got some brand awareness out of digital events, though 50% said that’s still a challenge when it comes to building that awareness among new prospects.

Furloughs, Layoffs, and the “Brain Drain”

With many forced to leave the industry altogether to find new ways to pay their bills, exhibitors also are worried about service levels once shows do return, as well as a “brain drain” from losing the institutional knowledge of those who have had to leave the industry.

Sixty-six percent of vendors say it will take them at least three months to become fully operational, and 18% say it could take up to a year, said Acker. And, he added, “They’re concerned about being able to have the talent that they need to bring back,” though 35% of vendors also say they already are hiring back staff.

The Good News

While the landscape still is looking pretty tough for trade shows, there is some good news. Breden cited a recent Freeman study that showed that 78% of attendees expect to return to in-person events this fall, increasing to 94% by this winter.

Acker added that his group’s surveys have found that 86% strongly believe in the power of and prefer in-person events.

 “One of the things I am proud of is the level of collaboration that all of us have had over this last year,” said Breden. “Competitors have put aside their competitive nature just to bring the industry back. But we are all still recovering, so we need to make sure that we’re fair. We’re all coming back, but we still need to all be working together.”

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