Straight Talk with David Audrain, Executive Director, SISO

January 21, 2021

Twenty-eight-year industry veteran David Audrain is a who’s who of the trade show industry. Besides serving as president of Clarion Events North America and Messe Frankfurt NA, Audrain has held executive and senior positions at ConvExx, Advanstar, Hanley-Wood and Miller Freeman during the course of his storied career. Under his skilled leadership, top shows including MAGIC, SEMA Show and SURFACES achieved strong growth and success. 

When he’s not leading up Exposition Development Company (ExpoDevCo), a trade show production and management company he launched in 2012 with his business partner and wife, Stephanie Everett, Audrain is executive director of SISO and a tireless advocate for the industry.

TSNN had a chance to get Audrain’s expert insights on the current state of the industry, the level of risk show organizers will have to prepare for in the “new abnormal,” and how he’s personally been navigating this strange and tumultuous time. 

What is the biggest change your organization has navigated in the past year?

For SISO, the biggest change was not being able to hold our two conferences in-person so we could connect our members together in the traditional ways, and then having to create online roundtables and webinars to at least provide some opportunities for our members to share and pick up information.

For ExpoDevCo, we had to deal with a dramatic change of plans and budget for 2020. We were originally scheduled to run 11 events, a combination of several we own or are joint-venture partners in, along with other events that we manage under contract. We had to postpone and then cancel eight of those 11 scheduled events, and the three events we were able to produce in February and March were negatively impacted by COVID-19. We have been able to keep almost all of our staff in place due to some continued management fee income, as well as some access to loans and grants. Our whole staff have been working from home offices since we started the business nine years ago, so that was the only change we didn’t have to make.

How do you think the industry will be most changed going forward?

The level of risk for organizers, especially for association show organizers, will be higher than they have ever planned for in the past. This will require a higher risk tolerance and possibly higher capitalization and reserves. Our company always carried event cancellation insurance with communicable diseases coverage, but this coverage is now not available. Even when it is available again, it will exclude COVID-19 and any derivatives of it, as it previously excluded SARS, MERS, H1N1. 

The inability for us to insure against these risks will create an exponential increase in potential losses to an event organizer. We are also going to find our own exhibitors and attendees starting to question their own risks of participating in our events, and it could delay commitments from [them]. Our agreements with our venues and services partners will also likely change. We will require them to have specific language protecting us against similar pandemic-type scenarios, and they will also be looking to protect themselves. 

Do you see virtual as here to stay or just a stop-gap until live events return?

First of all, I hate the term “virtual.” There is nothing “virtual” about running webinars and discussions online — they are “real,” just online instead of in-person. The word virtual came from the idea of digital booths and attendees with avatars, both of which are not worth much to most people. I believe that the wider use of online content delivery will continue, but the idea of “online trade shows” is no more likely to replace in-person live events than it was a year ago. Feedback from exhibitors and attendees clearly show that they want live in-person events, not online digital ones. 

What have you learned most about yourself during the pandemic?

That I am still a pretty optimistic person, though it has been tougher than I have ever expected to remain so.

About your teams?

That they are willing to step up and help in any way they are needed, and are willing to work outside their comfort zones.

What kind of self-care has been key for your mental health during these past seven months and why?

I’d like to say that I’ve taken advantage of the extra time at home not traveling to exercise and sleep more, but the truth is not that. I have been luckier than many I know who are having to work from home without extra support. My business partner is also my wife, so I am lucky in that we are working together from home just as we did before COVID-19, and even though we haven’t been traveling and I’m around twice as much as before, she still seems happy to have me around!   

Where is the first place you want to travel when things open up and why?

Paris! It is my favorite city in the world and [2020 was] the first year in a long time that we were not able to visit it at least once.


Interested in being featured or recommending an industry professional for Straight Talk? Email TSNN Senior Editor Lisa Savas at

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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. 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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. 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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.