The Show Must Go On

The current state of trade shows and events — and what they might look like after the pandemic

Photo: Getty Images by Adam Taylor

For promotional products businesses, normalcy means trade shows. We talked to promo insiders, an analyst at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, and an executive at the International Association of Events and Exhibitions to find out what the industry is doing without shows and events, when they might return and what they'll look like when they do.

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by Brendan Menapace
September 2020

When it comes to returning to full normalcy—sharing a drink with your friends, hugging your loved ones, the unease of someone waiting too close to you in the checkout line at the store—there are so many variables. And in a country as large as the U.S., where coronavirus restrictions as well as infection rates vary wildly even from county to county or town to town, there’s no easy answer to the question: When will things get back to normal?

For promotional products businesses, normalcy means trade shows. It means client visits. It means enough time on airplanes that you somehow sleep better in a middle seat than your own bed at this point (or you have enough points to never see a middle seat ever again).

In 2020, those in the promo industry watched in horror as the events industry was decimated by the pandemic, swiftly and without mercy. And it wasn’t just industry-specific events like PPAI Expo East in Atlantic City in June, which called it early as officials prepared the convention hall for use as an overflow facility in case hospitals reached critical mass. The Masters. March Madness. Drupa. San Diego Comic-Con. Next year’s CES. All gone. Last week, PPAI announced that the 2021 PPAI Expo, the industry's mecca, would go all virtual. The Washington Post just reported that the big shows won't be back for some time. Even in July, as demand for some non-PPE product categories began ticking upwards, 82 percent of promo companies said demand for trade show and events products was still decreasing, according to data from NAPCO Research and Promo Marketing.

For awhile, we were optimistic. In March, we thought we’d be back to normal by summer. Now, with summer in the rearview window, we’re hopeful for the beginning of 2021. According to some medical experts, that’s not impossible, but it’s going to require some work on our part.

“If we can significantly reduce the number of cases here in the U.S., and in the rest of the world, during the remaining months of 2020, then we could look at having trade shows resume in 2021,” Lucia Mullen, MPH, senior analyst at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells me. “However, they would most likely not be ‘normal,’ but require certain health and safety measures, such as testing, mask use, physical distancing, health screening upon entrances, etc., to take place. Until this virus is controlled, any large gathering is going to require some health and safety measures to ensure it does not allow the virus to spread through the event.”

In March, many promotional products companies, like Goldstar, were gearing up for a time where good business seemed like it was a guarantee. Then the rug came out from under everyone.

“We were about to have our best month in company history in March, and then it’s gone. It’s just gone,” says Kenny Ved, MAS, vice president of sales for Goldstar. “I know the term ‘pivot’ has been overly used, but we got our entrepreneurial hats on and said, ‘OK, how are we going to figure this out and make this work in our respective departments,’ and then feed it all the way up to the top.”

It’s at this point speaking with Kenny that I think about Mr. Rogers. It’s a famous story. When Fred Rogers was a kid, and scary things were happening in the world or on the news, his mother would remind him to look for the helpers. In a lot of ways, the promo industry had a lot of helpers, who also could help themselves from a business standpoint. “We’re very fortunate in the promotional products industry that we have an infrastructure and a supply chain that has allowed us to feed this pandemic need,” Ved says. “That’s such a beautiful thing.”

Think about how quickly apparel companies jumped on providing PPE like medical gowns and masks. And just about every supplier under the sun is providing masks and hand sanitizer. All of these will be necessities when trade shows are happening again. With regards to trade shows specifically, there are flashes of optimism here. Probably the one to remember the most is that we are going through this at a time where technology is so advanced. That’s one advantage we have on the Spanish Flu pandemic of the early 20th Century.

In addition to robust contact tracing and testing capabilities, and the ability to isolate and, eventually, develop a vaccine against the virus, we have the power of video calls. They’ve even facilitated a version of some of those happy hours we love so much. With the global nature of business these days, too, a video chat is far from a foreign concept.

“Our company has been Zooming for over a year and a half, so that wasn’t new to us,” Ved says. “We were able to react so much faster in terms of virtual meetings and things like that with just our normal lifestyle. So that was cool. I would say it really tasked us to think differently, and not just be, ‘Hey, I’m just a rep.’ How can I be out there and knock on people’s doors and provide solutions for the problem at hand with the services and products that we had? That was really good to see from a team perspective. With field sales and inside sales—everyone, we all had to think differently. When you think about it, within seven days we had to have all of our employees in the office set up remotely. And these people have never worked remotely in their life for the most part.”

This doesn’t necessarily pertain only to events, but it’s important context. Everyone had to think differently in their own office (especially if that was now at home). They had to think differently about how they performed their job and what they could do differently, and a lot of people had to figure out how to work remotely for the first time. Everyone will have to think differently about trade shows now, too.

"There may be smaller, more regional shows where there might be more of a drive-in audience. There may be wider aisles. There may be specific times for groups of people to be on the show floor, appointments and things like that."

—Cathy Breden, CEO for the Center for Exhibition Industry Research and executive vice president for the International Association of Events and Exhibitions

As a medical professional at one of the most prestigious institutions in the world, Mullen doesn’t pull any punches. It’s her job to present the facts without flinching, and to undersell the severity of our current situation would be grossly irresponsible. So, when she says that there are ways to continue with trade shows, and that they’ll return in force at some point, that’s a good sign.

One thing that you just can’t cut from the way of doing things is networking and relationship-building. And thankfully, the internet has made it possible to do that from opposite ends of the globe if you need to. Let’s say a company sees that productivity hasn’t changed with everyone working in a home office, and it decides to keep remote work in place even after the pandemic ends. The need for trade shows and meetings will always be there, and there will always be ways to pull it off even when everyone is quarantined.

“I think events are different from the day-to-day activities of most companies,” Mullen says. “Especially the networking aspect. Therefore, I think there will still be a high demand for events, even if businesses decide to remain working remotely.”

“I think the hybrid approach is going to continue because folks are at different levels in their business environment and even personal environments,” Ved says. “We have to take account that folks have kids at home, and maybe those kids aren’t able to go to school during these times. Is the parent going to be obligated to go to the office or travel to a trade show, or be with their families? These are tough life choices.”

Cathy Breden, CEO for the Center for Exhibition Industry Research and executive vice president for the International Association of Events and Exhibitions, obviously has expertise, as well as a stake in the trade show game. She’s seen the exhibition industry get rocked before—maybe not on this scale, but rocked nonetheless. And each time, it’s bounced back.

“Moving into the future, I don’t think that shows will pivot 100 percent to virtual,” she says. “I think there’s a great value in face to face. Over and over and over again the trade show industry has proven to be very resilient after crises like the recessions and after 9/11 for instance, which was the last time that virtual platforms became really well known, and there was concern that show organizers would move to virtual at a higher rate, which wasn’t the case.”

Beyond the benefits from a business networking and education standpoint, the trade show industry is enormous. Within the promotional products industry alone, it plays a role in many distributors’ key sales verticals. Products like displays, table covers and more are standard sales for pretty much any company that participates in trade shows—which is to say, pretty much every company. Trade shows and events are also primary drivers of orders for giveaway-type products, the bread and butter for many promo businesses.

As we’ve seen, without in-person trade shows, there’s a sizable gap not just in the promo industry, but in the economy overall. “Last year, the industry contributed $101 billion to the U.S. economy, and it has been absolutely devastating,” Breden says. “Many events that were scheduled have either been canceled or postponed.” IAEE research has shown that shows could likely return by the first quarter of 2021, but much like everything else, it’s subject to change. Even that depends largely on the creativity of event organizers.

“Between the organizers and the contractors that they work with to lay out that show floor, all those types of things will be taken into consideration,” says Breden. “IAEE released a document called the essential considerations for safely reopening exhibitions and events, and that’s on the IAEE website. As well, we work with the international association of venue managers and the exhibition services and contractors association in developing those essential considerations. There may be smaller, more regional shows where there might be more of a drive-in audience. There may be wider aisles. There may be specific times for groups of people to be on the show floor, appointments and things like that.”

Ved agrees that smaller-scale shows could thrive while large-scale events remain risky or altogether off-limits, and that no matter what, the personal element of trade shows will always need to happen one way or another. And to be realistic (verging on pessimistic), it’s important to remember that once a vaccine hits the market, we can’t all magically get it at once. Even if we get an approved vaccine in November, it could take the better part of 2021 to distribute it at large enough scale to get back to big shows. Smaller shows and distancing measures will still need to stay in place for some time.

“Our industry is still an in-person, collaborative community,” says Ved. “Is it needed? Maybe. I think it’s still too early to say. Let’s just hypothetically say that a magic wand got us a vaccine today. Deploying that to 300 million people is challenging.”

Not having to fly to regional events takes some of the sting out, so that’s one solution—smaller events in more cities with fewer people, less dependence on flying and so on. But that’s not exactly an easy change. Anyone who has been a part of the planning process for a trade show or event of this size knows that it’s not the kind of thing you do on a whim. These events are booked out years in advance in most cases. So, for an event to be canceled or modified outright at the eleventh hour is devastating to all parties involved.

Up until now, varying standards and regulations from state to state (or even county to county) has made near-future planning difficult. There’s a chance that it could allow people to pivot, though. The economic benefits of trade shows don’t stop on the show floor. It’s in cities’ best interests economically to have events again. We saw the way canceling college sports and going virtual for major events like the Democratic and Republican National Conventions caused host cities to miss out on significant revenue from visiting attendees.

“It’s a little frustrating for organizers that we’re lumped in with those mass gatherings,” Breden says. “There is an advocacy push now by the industry to communicate that with the governors of each of the states and the mayors and things like that, to help them better understand that trade shows are controlled gatherings and that they should be allowed to be held. And if they’re not allowed to be held in a state where it’s prohibited, then those shows may [relocate], because there is lots of space right now. And if they really want to hold that event, they can take that show to another city and the likelihood of that show returning to a city where it was previously contracted, that city may lose that opportunity for the show in the future.”

An empty convention center illuminated at night. Photo: Getty Images

Two things can’t be overstated right now: One is that this is unprecedented, and we are in a situation now where all we can do is our best. We simply don’t have enough information to make accurate projections with any sort of definitive authority. The other is that you can find solutions, even if your client-base from events and exhibitions is smaller than it was before.

“I think you always have to have various eggs in the basket—various colors of eggs in the basket,” says Ved. “You can’t just put everything into one channel or vertical. That’s just me. I think there have been plenty of opportunities since the pandemic has started. The entrepreneurial spirit those people have, they will figure it out as we go. There’s no book written on this, but there are skills that have been taught that have allowed people to reinvent themselves in unique ways. You’ve got the work-from-home kit that’s already happening. You can look at the supply chain in our industry and how we can positively impact the pandemic and potentially have some business with it. First, the positive approach is how do we get out of this as fast as possible, and then we can get on with our lives. […] We look at our industry sales, and I think decimated is a strong word, but we have a recovery versus other industries. We’re bouncing. We’re like a little ball that’s hit the bottom and is going back up again.”

When the shows do start to return, they will look a bit different. Even if we don’t know exactly what that will mean, exhibitors and the companies that support them can still start planning now.

“Businesses should consider how they will address issues such as noncompliance when they are developing their safety plans for events,” says Mullen. “They should also ensure their plans are adaptable. Unfortunately, we have seen this virus can spike very quickly—in a matter of weeks—so we must be able to adjust as a society and implement additional safety or control measures if needed.”

These are things like the wider aisles Breden mentioned. Maybe it’s appointments for the show floor. Maybe it’s even incentives you send out weeks before the event in the form of direct mail or a self-promo that limits meandering around a show floor and instead makes attendees beeline to a booth.

“Those clients, in advance of a virtual trade show, they might send an item in advance of that virtual event encouraging those virtual attendees to visit their booths,” Breden says. “There are things around there and it’s more where in advance the exhibitor might send a branded item to the attendees that they might want to reach.”

And there are things we can do as citizens. Wear masks in public. Regularly wash and sanitize your hands. Limit gatherings and nonessential travel. The more we work together, the sooner things can go back to something like normal.

“We have seen other countries effectively control their outbreak and start opening up, including holding large gatherings,” Mullen says. “While the numbers of such gatherings have remained fairly limited, we have seen that the control measures, coupled with the very low number of cases circulating in their communities, have allowed for such events to occur without cases rising or being connected to this event. So, we know it is possible both to control the virus in a community and start returning to ‘normal,’ and therefore we can get there in the U.S. But it will take time and dedication from everyone to stop the outbreak.”