As trade show organizers struggle to navigate the most challenging year in memory, opportunities and reasons for optimism remain, according to the Exhibition and Convention Executives Forum, the annual education and networking gathering of exhibition organizers organized by Lippman Connects.
While the day-long event has traditionally been held in Washington, D.C., this year it was moved to a fully digital format. The live portion kicked off with organizer Sam Lippman's "5 Key Data Points in 5 Minutes," drawing on the new WAVE Research project from Freeman, the event management powerhouse, which surveyed thousands of attendees, exhibitors and event marketers. He pointed out that confidence to return to in-person events rose to 29 percent, up from 18 percent in July.
"Our customers are bombarded daily with health news and safety regulations, but one thing is for sure: They can't wait to return to our events," said Lippman. He pointed out that almost half (49 percent) of attendees said they feel they have enough information to decide when to return to events, including information from organizers, which makes it "absolutely imperative that we continue to deserve our customers' trust by being honest and communicating with them on a frequent basis."
Considering the growing importance of digital in effective event promotion and success, Lippman underlined the need to improve online marketing and communication with attendees. Digital events are still evolving as an alternative to in-person events, according to Lippman, pointing out that just 17 percent of respondents use digital events as a replacement for in-person gatherings.
He predicted more innovation in event format and duration, such as a "hub-and-spoke" model in which multiple in-person events take place simultaneously while being digitally connected. Or, events of shorter hours lasting "weeks or months."
"We all know the next year is going to be shaky and the degree of roughness will vary by vertical and location," said Lippman.
Surveying the global landscape for trade shows, Kai Hattendorf, managing director and CEO of UFI, the Global Association of the Exhibition Industry, and Mark Cochrane, the organizatioin's regional manager Asia/Pacific, discussed how the return of large-scale, in-person gatherings in parts of Asia and Europe provide insights for how the wider industry could come back.
UFI started tracking the reopening of events as soon as Asia began to come out of lockdown. Cochrane, who is based in Hong Kong, outlined how events in major hubs in China — "Easily the best performing market in Asia," he said — have returned to about 70 percent of 2019 levels, though destinations like Hong Kong and Singapore, more dependent on international attendees "are really going to struggle to organize events" until the borders open further.
Hattendorf, based in Germany, discussed the shifts in Europe, from lockdown to loosening restrictions back to lockdown. While large-scale events are impossible in most European markets for now, he said, "Everything is in place for the reopening once we get these numbers back down under control." He pointed to the decision by governments in Germany and Italy to label trade-show attendance as "essential travel."
Hattendorf shared some of the topline findings from UFI's recent survey of more than 450 exhibition organizers, and insights from the Global Recovery Insights project, drawing on the responses of more than 9,000 trade show exhibitors and attendees.
"Their verdict is clear: they are missing face-to-face, they don't see as many opportunities and they don't see digital as a valid alternative to drive their businesses," he said. While most respondents said they expect business to return to pre-Covid levels within one or two show cycles, 14 percent did not expect it would.
Looking at the top reasons that respondents hesitated to take part in a trade show now, all were related to the pandemic: that the event will be postponed or cancelled, travel restrictions will make it impossible or out of concerns for their own health.
"If we can get Covid under control, the top three reasons holding people back from attending will be gone," said Hattendorf.
Between the live keynotes at ECEF, attendees also could take part in one-on-one networking opportunities or join breakout sessions hosted by industry leaders, such as "Empowering/Creating Next Gen Leaders," hosted by Emerald executive vice president Karalynn Sprouse, or "Adaptability" with Maritz Global Events president David Peckinpaugh.