Trade Shows Can—and Should—Be Held In Person This Year, According to Five Industry Leaders

January 27, 2022

More and more face-to-face trade shows and events are going live again, and that’s great news for a beleaguered industry that has faced tremendous challenges during the past two years.  

TSNN asked five industry leaders from leading trade show companies—Greg Topalian, CEO, Clarion Events North America; Nancy Walsh, president, Informa Markets North America; Hervé Sedky, president and CEO, Emerald; Karen Chupka, executive vice president, CES, Consumer Technology Association (CTA); and Douglas Emslie, CEO, Tarsus Group—why they believe it’s time for trade shows to be held in person again and what their organizations are doing to ensure the health and safety of all event participants.

Why is it important for trade shows to be held in person? 

Topalian: Simply nothing replaces face-to-face interaction. The past two years have proven that point countless times. While there is some exciting new progress on digital products, they don’t replace the value of meeting in person. Our customers and industries continue to struggle to create the kind of lead generation and customer acquisition that our events provide. 

Walsh: Digital channels and data-led solutions help add productivity and efficiency to the live event experience in the same way that they do in our day-to-day lives, but they are not a replacement for in-person experiences. Product discovery is available virtually, but you miss the tactile experience of seeing and feeling the product. Supplier discovery is available virtually, but you miss the opportunity to build relationships. Our goal is to create meaningful connections that accelerate growth opportunities for the communities we serve, and there is no tool more powerful to accomplish that than face-to-face.

Sedky: One of the key learnings the pandemic demonstrated is the power of human connection and the vital role relationships and communities play in our everyday lives. As our industry continues to recover and the number of in-person events increases, we are seeing a business practice we took for granted prior to COVID, which is the social, economic and psychosocial value of in-person connection.  

People want to meet face-to-face to share ideas, products and innovations; to be inspired, share best practices and discuss challenges. These serendipitous conversations are extremely valuable in the exhibitions industry, as they drive connections, commerce and growth for customers and communities.

Chupka: Trade shows provide companies with an opportunity to meet face-to-face with partners, customers, media and investors. Events like CES gather attendees and exhibitors from all over the world and create serendipitous meetings and relationship-building that happens most effectively in person. For CES 2022, we welcomed over 2,300 companies—many medium to small companies—who wanted to do business face-to-face. 

Emslie: We’ve heard repeatedly throughout the pandemic and as we reopened larger-scale events over the past year how nothing can replace the value of a live event. When the industry was brought to a standstill at the height of the pandemic, virtual events became a useful alternative for some but as soon as it was safe and practical to do so, our customers wanted to meet in-person again. 

The pandemic has also severely impacted supply chains and damaged economies. Trade shows have a crucial role to play in rebuilding supply chains by bringing suppliers and buyers back together. For most industries, it would take buyers weeks and multiple trips to meet with the same number of suppliers outside of a show. We also need to remember that the events industry plays a significant role in supporting other industries such as hotels, restaurants, airlines, transportation, cleaning services and others that have been hit hardest by COVID-19. These industries and their employees are very reliant on the continued running of live events.

How are your show teams overcoming the challenges and ensuring a safe and healthy return to in-person shows?

Topalian: We have learned to manage the situation and make decisions early and communicate often. I’m proud of the approach our team and the industry in general has taken to embrace safety measures that give customers confidence to attend. It starts with understanding each of your markets and all of the specific factors, such as location, amount of travel for customers and level of international participation. 

Walsh: One of the biggest challenges our industry has faced has been the ever-changing health and safety guidelines and the different state-by-state—and sometimes county-by-county—regulations. I have been really impressed with our teams’ ability to navigate those choppy waters successfully.

Back when the pandemic broke out, we worked across the industry to create the AllSecure Standards for health and safety, which we still use today. We also ask our communities for input, and allow them to determine the health and safety measures that are important to them. We have successfully implemented on-site testing, safe food sampling and many other complicated programs. Our top two priorities going into every show are how can we keep our communities safe, and how can we maximize their opportunities for success? I am proud that our teams have found creative ways to do both successfully. 

Sedky: Throughout the reopening process, we have remained vigilant about the health and safety of all who attend Emerald’s trade shows and conferences and stay committed to providing the safest environment possible. 

The Emerald team continuously monitors the health and safety plans for every event to ensure current recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and all city, state and venue protocols and requirements are in place. In addition, the Exhibitions and Conferences Alliance partnered with Epistemix, a computational modeling software company that develops simulations to model the spread of diseases and inform policy, to help us develop policies, protocols and scientific best-practices to evaluate opening strategies and ensure safe, controlled environments for our guests.

Chupka: CTA worked with a number of medical advisors and local experts to develop comprehensive safety measures for CES. All attendees were required to show proof of vaccination, masks were required to be worn indoors, and we provided all attendees with BiNAX NOW COVID-19 tests. These effective health measures provided an environment where attendees were able to be part of a worthwhile and productive event. 

Emslie: Our teams and staff have really risen to all the challenges. We’ve worked very closely with local authorities in all the territories that we operate in to ensure that our events are delivered in line with their requirements. In addition, we’ve [also] rolled out the industry AllSecure standards at our events for the wellbeing of our attendees, suppliers and staff. The industry has pulled together in a remarkable way [and] we’ve collaborated closely with other organizers, venues and authorities to make our events as safe and productive as possible. 

What has been the overall feedback from attendees and exhibitors at show(s) your company has held since in person started coming back?

Topalian: Overwhelmingly positive. Our shows are important to our customers’ businesses, and nothing replaced them effectively over the past two years. Of course, the challenge today is getting consensus from a whole group. We try to be as close to our customers as we can so that our events reflect the needs of the majority. In addition to our large scale shows, the work we do on matching through businesses like Quartz and Consero has been incredible. Those models are built to deliver high levels of ROI and are more adaptable to a digital model. 

Walsh: People are so happy to be back on the showfloor, reconnecting with old friends and colleagues and making new ones. I also think an important mindset shift is happening. The single most consistent piece of feedback we have received since June is that people are making the right connections at our shows. Simply put, many of our exhibitors did just as much business as they had in years prior, because people who attended trade shows this year were highly engaged and motivated to make connections and do business. We have traditionally been focused on maximizing attendance, and now we are realizing that we need to shift focus to maximizing the quality of attendance so that every single connection you make onsite is ripe with potential. 

Sedky: Attendee and exhibitor presence at recent Emerald events has been driven by the need to meet and rising consumer demand. This has resulted in extensive order writing and new business generation for our exhibitors, especially small and mid-sized companies that are heavily reliant on trade shows to drive their business by launching new products, generating new leads and entering new geographies. In fact, the strong attendee turnout at our recent events, with the ratio of attendees to exhibitors increasing over 20% compared to 2019 levels on average across all events, has contributed to an almost 400% average increase in our exhibitor net promoter scores (NPS), compared to 2019. This critical business function, coupled with the positive feedback from our customers, reinforces the relevance and sustainable value of our B2B in-person events. 

Chupka: As our event was just two weeks ago, we are still collecting data and information. However, we have received dozens of notes and emails from attendees, exhibitors and media from across the globe expressing how valuable their CES experience was. For many, this was the first time in two years they were able to connect in person, and they were grateful for the quality interactions and experiences. 

Emslie: Feedback from attendees and exhibitors alike has been overwhelmingly positive. There has been a huge desire to get back to meeting in person, they appreciate the efforts we have made to reopen events, and also our health and safety measures have given them extra confidence in attending our shows. Understandably there are plenty of customers and attendees who do not feel comfortable attending in-person shows at the moment, and we have made sure to keep our product offering broad enough to support them in the interim (e.g. online platforms and hybrid events). Hopefully as 2022 progresses and the current Omicron wave subsides, we will all find ourselves in a better place, and we will be welcoming people to our events in ever greater numbers.

We know you are not a fortune teller, but what do you see as the road ahead for the rest of 2022 and going into 2023 for our industry?

Topalian: It appears things will return to more normal levels as soon as March. While we may have more setbacks, we are learning to deal with them and plan around them. These past two years created an opportunity for the whole live event model to be challenged and it has not been replaced. It also created an opportunity to innovate and think differently. For companies that evolved [their] model and invented new ways to connect, the future is bright. I see the traditional business performing well in 2022 and returning fully to 2019 levels by 2023. For those that innovated, 2019 levels should be exceeded this year. 

Walsh: Barring another massive global upheaval, I know that 2022 is going to be a really strong recovery year for us. We just hosted our first show of the new year, World of Concrete, and we exceeded our attendance goals on day one. People are ready and eager to get back to valuable in-person experiences. I think people can underestimate the resiliency of our industry, and I am confident that this year will exceed expectations.

As I mentioned, I do think there is a shift toward quality attendance over quantity, and there is absolutely value to us in leveraging digital and data solutions more than ever before to identify those quality audiences, and keep our communities connected year-round. I think those themes will continue through 2022 and well beyond, as they add some important new opportunities for our communities. 

Sedky: I remain optimistic that the global trade show industry will continue to rebound. We’re running a full events calendar for 2022 with approximately 150 events. We led the way in the U.S. in 2021 with 43 live events staged, hosting 127,000 total attendees and 7,200 exhibiting companies. Our exhibitor satisfaction was very high, with a strong attendee turnout. The ratio of attendee-to-exhibitor increased by more than 22% compared to 2019, which led to a significant increase in average net promoter scores. As a result, we have seen pacing improvements quarter after quarter since Q4 2021.

Chupka: The key for any show to be successful this year will be their ability to adapt to the ongoing challenges of the pandemic. Business people want to reconnect and do business face-to-face, as it is a critical component for success. It will take time, and I don’t think we will return to 2019 attendance numbers in 2022, but I think there will be strong satisfaction from those who attend and exhibit in shows in 2022.  

Emslie: I believe we have a bright future ahead. We have had to adjust course over the past two years, but our determination to bring people together in person is stronger than ever. We know our customers and attendees feel the same way, as we have seen them return in significant numbers to our events, and together we have proven the crucial role of B2B events. We’ve pushed and challenged ourselves more than ever in these past two years, and I think ultimately our industry will thrive as a result of all the innovation and creativity. Our products, both digital and face-to-face, will also be stronger as a result. 

I also believe the industry will reflect and learn from the effects of the pandemic as we return to full strength and as a result will be determined to rebuild in a more sustainable way and commit to tackling climate change and achieving net zero by 2050.

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