Canadian Manufacturing

Crushed by pandemic, conventions mount a cautious return

Experts say one of the big lessons of 2020 is that much of what happens at conferences and trade shows can happen virtually, lessening the need for big in-person events.

September 9, 2021  by Associated Press

In pre-COVID times, business events — from small academic conferences to giant trade shows like CES — routinely attracted more than 1 billion participants each year. The pandemic brought those global gatherings to a sudden halt, emptying convention centers and shuttering hotels.

More than a year later, in-person meetings are on the rebound. In late August, 30,000 masked attendees gathered in Las Vegas for ASD Market Week, a retail trade show. In Chicago, the Black Women’s Expo recently held the largest event in its history, with 432 vendors and thousands of masked attendees.

“People are cautious, but they’re glad to be able to get out and network with other people,” said Dr. Barbara Hall, whose company, JBlendz Communications, was among the exhibitors at the expo.

Still, it could be several years — if ever — before conferences attract the crowds they did before the pandemic. Many countries and businesses are still restricting travel, pinching attendance at big events like the Canton Trade Fair in China, which required 26,000 vendors to pitch their wares virtually in April.

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Health concerns also remain. The industry is keen to avoid another black eye like the Biogen leadership conference, a February 2020 event in Boston that was eventually linked to 300,000 COVID cases.

The New York Auto Show, which regularly attracts more than 1 million people, was canceled two weeks before its August start date because of concerns about the delta variant. A construction machinery trade show in Beijing, which normally attracts 150,000 visitors, has been delayed for two months until November.

Experts say one of the big lessons of 2020 is that much of what happens at conferences and trade shows can happen virtually, lessening the need for big in-person events.

This year, the Web Summit expects 40,000 attendees when it convenes in Lisbon, Portugal, in November. Vaccines or a negative COVID-19 test will be required to attend, but masks are optional.

The Render-Atlanta software engineering conference, scheduled for mid-September, is also requiring vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test to enter. To make attendees feel even safer, the conference cut a deal with a sponsor to provide daily testing for its 400 attendees. Masks — which can be personalized at a decorating station — will be required. Attendees can also wear black-and-white bracelets showing their level of comfort with social interaction. Dots mean they’re okay with it, stripes mean “stay away.”

Justin Samuels, Render-Atlanta’ chief experience officer, said it’s worth the extra hoops to gather in person. Render-Atlanta is the only Black-owned software engineering conference, with an emphasis on culture that doesn’t translate to a Zoom screen, Samuels said.

“The actual art of human interaction has to happen in person,” Samuels said.

A lot is riding on the revival of in-person meetings. Prior to the pandemic, conferences and trade shows generated more than $1 trillion in direct spending and attracted 1.5 billion attendees annually around the world, according to the Events Industry Council, a trade group.

The group hasn’t yet calculated the impact of the virus globally. But the Center for Exhibition Industry Research, which studies the economic impact of U.S. business-to-business trade shows, said those events alone were expected to generate $105 billion in direct and indirect spending in 2020. Instead, that plunged to $24 billion. CEIR doesn’t expect a return to growth for the industry until 2023.

Steve Hill, CEO and president of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, said 2022 is shaping up to be a good year for the industry. But he acknowledges a lot will depend on the situation around COVID-19 and whether international travel restrictions are lifted. Foreigners can account for 20% to 30% of attendees at he city’s major events, he said.

Hill thinks virtual convention elements are here to stay. They give shows another revenue stream and help them develop followers, he said. But Hill thinks enough people will continue to visit in person that hybrid events won’t hurt hotels and restaurants in convention cities.

“The shows will get back to 100% attendance. People need the in-person aspect of a show,” he said.


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