The Unintended Consequences of the Empty Exhibitor Booth

February 16, 2022

Rich Vallaster

Rich Vallaster serves as the director of marketing, industry relations and trade show work at A2Z Events–Personify. He has spent the bulk of his career in the events business, from large-scale outdoor experiences to trade shows and conferences. An appointed member of the CEIR Research Council and an active member of IAEE and PCMA, Vallster serves on several exhibitor advisory committees and speaks to organizers, exhibitors and attendees regularly at leading industry events.

An event organizer’s priority is everyone’s health and safety. The Delta and Omicron variants certainly raised concerns as they seemed to pop up overnight. The good news is that events, even large-scale trade shows, have been staging for well over a year now—successfully and safely.   

Our good friends at Freeman and Epistemix commissioned a study last year and found that “risks of COVID-19 infection at events were as much as eight times less than the metro area where they were being held.” The study went further in stating, “In-person business event participants are more likely to be vaccinated, reflecting a vaccination rate above 80 percent and creating vaccination coverage that drastically cuts transmission of COVID-19 at those events, regardless of the gathering size.”

Data is on our side as event organizers, and if we aren’t sharing that with exhibitors and sponsors who want to leave the show, shame on us.   

But Is There Still Risk?   

Of course, but that risk to attendees existed well before COVID-19. How many of us have gotten the cold, flu or stomach bug after traveling to and from an event? As boosters and vaccinations have further increased and the Omicron variant has become far less problematic for vaccinated individuals, some European nations have moved to an epidemic phase and learned to treat it as we would the common flu. 

As someone who has followed every protocol and been conservative in my approach to this pandemic, I have felt comfortable for nearly a year now traveling to events once I was vaccinated and subsequently boosted. I am certainly still cautious but feel safer at an event than at a local hardware store. It is also clear from my times at the airport, vacation destinations and big-box retailers, that people are comfortable in far less controlled circumstances than a trade show. 

Safety or Savings?  

So why are some exhibitors and sponsors asking to get a refund? First, we know it is not their desire to attend another virtual event based on Explori’s benchmarks that show exhibitor sentiment for virtual events at a -48 Net Promoter Score (NPS).  

Is it safety or savings? Many companies have still extended their 2020 travel bans or restrictions despite the research. However, companies have seen dramatic savings in their budgets with sales and account management teams essentially grounded from visiting face to face with clients as they are replaced with Zoom calls. While there is certainly something to be said about being judicious about financial resources and a shift in mindset around remote working, face-to-face interaction still drives business. These budget reductions can easily be recognized and continuing can save companies big bucks. 

What I found ironic and disappointing is that exhibitors who want to cancel their booth space or sponsor contracts are requesting to still attend and register. So, it’s safe enough to attend but not exhibit or sponsor?   

Who Is the Empty Booth Hurting? 

The organization, for one. Our research found that many association events are only generating 40% to 60% of their annual revenues. For some organizations, that number jumps to 80%. With virtual events, CEIR reported that organizations brought in a meager 50% of attendee fees compared to a physical event, and only 30% of gross revenue compared to the affiliated physical event.  

With the end of the Paycheck Protection Program, organizations will need to have physical and hybrid events to make up the difference from nearly two years without fully in-person events bringing in the revenue. Exhibitors make up a large portion of that revenue, many times supplementing the education and costs for attendees. Associations will be less empowered and resourced to help advocate for the particular industries—much of what those same exhibitors and sponsors benefitted from during COVID and will continue to benefit from long after. Let’s not also forget the revenue that each attendee and exhibitor support throughout the entire events ecosystem, from rideshare drivers, cleaners, carpenters, etc. They also depend on that booth being filled.   

Is Anybody Winning?  

You bet. When I have spoken with exhibitors about empty spaces on the show floor, they say they love it when their competition doesn’t show up. They articulate to their prospects how committed they are to the organization and its members. It is a powerful message and image that is resonating with attendees. Some exhibitors have shared with me that they get questions from attendees who say, “They must be out of business if they are not at this event.”  

Are we communicating to exhibitors and sponsors that they are not only hurting the association but also damaging their reputation by not being at the event? Are we sharing that attendees are making value judgments by not participating? Are we letting them know they are furthering their competition? Are they losing priority points and the ability to have a similar space at next year’s event? Having been in exhibit and sponsor sales for many years, I know this is no easy conversation.  

So, What’s Next?  

It’s time to have honest conversations with our exhibitor and sponsor companies. We need to educate them that their reputation is on the line by not participating. Attendees (their prospects and customers) will notice their absence. And more importantly, their competitors are maximizing their lack of participation and gaining an advantage.   

As show organizers, we must also modify our policies to prevent outboarding and suitcasing at our events from exhibitors and sponsors who have canceled but still want to attend. It’s not fair for those who have committed resources to your organization and shown up. 
And finally, we need to share the data that supports their safe participation, the importance to the association and their loss as a company by not participating. Show up for the association, prospects and clients who want to connect with them once again.


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Partner Voices
Less than six months ago, Lisa Messina joined the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA) as the first-ever chief sales officer after leading the sales team at Caesars Entertainment. A 12-year Las Vegas resident, Messina is a graduate of Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration and serves on MPI International’s board of directors. TSNN had a chance to catch up with this dynamic leader and talk to her about her vision for the new role, current shifts in the trade show industry, creating more diversity and equity within the organization, and advice to future female leaders. Lisa Messina, Chief Sales Officer, LVCVA With Las Vegas becoming The Greatest Arena on EarthTM, what are some of the things you’re most excited about in your role? Our team was at The Big Game’s handoff ceremony earlier this month, and I couldn’t help but think, “We’re going to crush it next year!”  These high-profile events and venues not only drive excitement, but also provide unmatched opportunities for event planners. Allegiant Stadium hosts events from 10 to 65,000 people and offers on-field experiences. Formula 1 Grand Prix will take place in Las Vegas in November, after the year-one F1 race, the four-story paddock building will be available for buyouts and will also offer daily ride-along experiences that will be available for groups. And, of course, the MSG Sphere officially announced that it will open in September, ahead of schedule, with a U2 residency. It’s going to be the most technologically advanced venue as far as lighting, sound, feel, and even scent, and it will be available for buyouts and next-level sponsorships inside and outside. There’s no ceiling to what you can do when you’re doing events in Las Vegas.  Allegiant Stadium As the trade show and convention business returns to the pre-pandemic levels, what shifts are you noticing and how do you think they will impact the industry going forward? Our trade show organizers are very focused on driving customer experience. Most of our organizers are reporting stronger exhibitor numbers and increased numbers of new exhibitors, with trade shows proving to be almost or above 2019 levels. Now our organizers are really doubling down on driving attendance and focusing on the data to provide that individualized, customized experience to help attendees meet their goals and get the best value. Some companies continue to be cautiously optimistic with their organizational spend when it comes to sending attendees, but I think it will continue to improve. As the U.S. Travel Association makes more progress on the U.S. visa situation, we also expect a growing influx of international attendees. What are some innovative ways the LVCVA helps trade show and convention organizers deliver the most value for their events? We focus on customer experience in the same way that trade show organizers are thinking about it. We got rave reviews with the West Hall Expansion of the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC), so over the next two years, we will be renovating the North and the Central halls, which will include not just the same look and feel, but also the digital experiences that can be leveraged for branding and sponsorship opportunities.  Vegas Loop, the underground transportation system designed by The Boring Company, is also a way we have enhanced the customer experience. Vegas Loop at the LVCC has transported more than 900,000 convention attendees across the campus since its 2021 launch. Last summer, Resorts World and The Boring Company opened the first resort stop at the Resorts World Las Vegas , with plans to expand throughout the resort corridor, including downtown Las Vegas, Allegiant Stadium and Harry Reid International Airport. The LVCVA also purchased the Las Vegas Monorail in 2020, the 3.9-mile-long elevated transportation system that connects eight resorts directly to the convention center campus. This is the only rail system in the world that integrates fares directly into show badges and registration. For trade show organizers, these transportation options mean saving time, money and effort when it comes to moving groups from the hotels to LVCC and around the city. Also, the more we can focus on building the infrastructure around the convention center, the more it supports the customer experience and ultimately supports our trade show organizers. Scheduled to debut in Q4, Fontainebleau Las Vegas will offer 3,700 hotel rooms and 550,000 square feet of meeting and convention space next to LVCC.  What are some of the plans for advancing DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) within your organization? We’re currently partnering with instead of working with a leading consulting firm, to lay the foundation and create a solid DEI plan and be the leader when it comes to DEI initiatives. The heart of that journey with the consulting firm is also talking to our customers about their strategic approaches to DEI and driving innovation in this space.  What are your favorite ways to recharge? My husband and I have an RV and we’re outdoorsy people. So, while we have over 150,000 world-class hotel rooms and renowned restaurants right outside our doorstep, one of my favorite things to do is get out to Red Rock Canyon, the Valley of Fire, and Lake Mead. Five of the top national parks are within a three-hour drive from Las Vegas, so there’s a lot you can do. We love balancing the energy of Las Vegas with nature, and we’re noticing that a lot of attendees add activities off the Strip when they come here.  Valley of Fire What advice would you give to women following leadership paths in destination marketing? I think it’s about being laser-focused on what you want to accomplish; building a team around you that lifts you and helps you achieve your goals; and being humble and realizing that you do it as a group. No one gets this done alone. Thankfully, there are a lot of women in leadership in this organization, in our customers’ organizations, and in this city that we can be really proud of. We’re a formidable force that is making things happen.   This interview has been edited and condensed. This article is exclusively sponsored by the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority. For more information, visit HERE.