What Does the Future Hold for Exhibitions?

Exhibitions, conferences, and tradeshows were amongst the first to feel the full force of the global coronavirus pandemic. The global association for the exhibition industry, UFI, has assessed that at least €134bn (US$145bn) of contracts were not concluded due to events not having taken place as planned through Q2 2020. They have also noted that an expected €81.6bn of total Q2 economic output related to the exhibition and trade show industry would now be written off.

Regardless of industry, exhibitions and trade shows have been cancelled across the board. After the Mobile World Congress was called off in late February, the dominoes began to topple. Household name tradeshows soon followed suit, with notable casualties such as SXSW, E3, and the North American Auto Show. There are a number of schools of thought as to how the wider industry progresses. While some trade shows are continuing unperturbed and postponing to a date where it is hoped that COVID-19 no longer dominates our lives, others are exploring virtual versions of their events or creating new concepts altogether.  


Even Postponed Events Will Need to Adapt

Many events have decided to knock this year on the head and return bigger and bolder than ever before, either later this year or early next year. That’s undoubtedly been the pharmaceutical industry’s approach, with leading pharma event provider CPhI mobilising quickly to secure dates for later in the year. But event organisers looking to operate  post-coronavirus are naïve if they think they can get away with an exhibition in much the same manner as initially planned.

Putting aside the fact that attendees may still be conscious of social distancing long after government-mandated policies have expired, vendors and exhibitors will be looking to reevaluate their contracts in the scenario of a subsequent cancellation. Lawyers on both sides of the equation are scrutinising force majeure clauses of their contracts. There will likely be a litany of cases dragged through the courts with vendors, organisers and attendees claiming COVID-19 qualifies as an “Act of God” that relinquishes them from their contractual responsibilities.

Then there’s the unavoidable investment needed to improve health and hygiene protocols for mass gatherings of this nature. Shaking hands will probably become a ritual of our recent past, auditoriums may require one spare seat either side of an attending delegate and mass temperature checks are set to become staple features of attending a conference. While some of the measures may only last until the threat of coronavirus subsides, many others will remain. Hand sanitizer, for example, has been the norm across cruise ships for several years as a preventative measure against the ever-present threat of norovirus and will become mandatory for exhibition organisers. For some attendees, increased health measures combined with fears about becoming infected with COVID-19 will be enough to put them off and search for alternative solutions such as virtual conferences.


Considerable Increase in Virtual Conferences 

Unsurprisingly, there has been a dramatic increase in virtual versions of in-person events. Many events already had digital additions to their in-person offering, but they’ve suddenly been catapulted to the forefront of the exhibition industry in the wake of the pandemic. For some, the benefits of moving content online have become immediately visible. For a start, the average spend of a conference attendee pre-pandemic was $1,294. Over the last three months, attendees have been treated to a glut of either free or nominally-priced virtual events where they’ve received just as much industry insight and informative content from expert speakers as they would have if they had attended in person. However, the networking has naturally not been as flowing as with an in-person event.

For some conference organisers, the disadvantage of not being able to facilitate networking has been outweighed by other factors, which could spell the end of their in-person events. Without the overheads associated with booking an exhibition center, they can provide high-level content at an affordable price point whilst remaining profitable. They may never return to the trade show halls they once frequented for events that are more of a meeting of minds than the unveiling of new products. We see this as accelerating the re-prioritisation  of the trade show concept, which has already been underway in the automotive industry, moving to a hybrid model where online participation expands attendee numbers and is delivered at a significantly lower cost.


Events, Exhibitions, and Trade Shows to Decentralize   

Exhibitions, in either hybrid or traditional form, will remain with those industries where the tactile element is so vital. For example, auto shows would lose their potency if individuals couldn’t sit in prototype vehicles or even test drive them in some instances. However, long before COVID-19, visitor numbers to traditional shows had decreased. If you look at Europe’s premier auto shows as an example, the Frankfurt show saw 930,000 people visit in 2015. In 2017 that was down to 810,000 and the September 2019 show only managed to attract 550,000 visitors, with some big-name car manufacturers dropping out. The world-famous Geneva Motor Show has been increasingly padding out stands with catering options, vintage cars, and car parts-manufacturers as mainstream auto company presentations began to thin out. Brands such as Jaguar, Nissan, Volvo, and Opel all opted not to display vehicles at this year’s show.

If virtual events are not suitable for some industries, but interest is fading quickly for traditional formats, what’s the answer? In the case of the automotive industry, it has come in the form of the OEMs themselves launching smaller but just as significant conferences for their products. Car brands are no longer hauling prototypes from show to show and paying the millions of dollars it requires to keep that particular juggling act on the road. Nor are they attending events to make big announcements, only to find themselves competing with other auto brands doing precisely the same thing. Instead, they’re launching their own smaller in-person events to launch new models and prototypes. Brands know that press and fans alike will still flock to these smaller events to get a look at the new vehicle and hopefully take it for a spin. GM tried the concept last year for its overhauled Corvette Stingray, and despite Elon Musk smashing the supposedly “indestructible” windows on Tesla’s new cyber truck at its launch event, they’ve been the pioneers of this more intimate exhibition concept.

When it comes to other industries such as pharmaceuticals and tech, organisers, vendors, and attending delegates alike are asking themselves whether the objective of an exhibition can be delivered in another way. It’s unlikely that much will change for those that require a large gathering of leading vendors (such as SXSW and E3), excluding the improvements to contracts and hygiene protocols mentioned at the beginning of the piece. However, some may opt to follow a similar strategy to the automobile industry and rethink the purpose of an event. Pharma companies, for instance, may start to host launches of groundbreaking drugs that will still garner the attention of the press and their most significant customers. Tech companies such as Google and Facebook may go back to the drawing board and explore more engaging ways to deliver regular updates for developers and software engineers rather than one annual mass gathering.


Irreplaceable Value of Networking Will Maintain Demand For In-Person Exhibitions

While virtual trade shows have initially been a success, they cannot replace the in-person networking element of traditional exhibitions. Before this public health crisis, most trade shows and exhibitions had sections of the agenda dedicated to networking. After all, for many attendees, building relationships at these events is the principal objective. Virtual events have tried to replicate face-to-face interactions by including live streams of product demonstrations, putting on question and answer sessions so that vendors can still interact with customers, and hosting video conference breakout groups. But it’s a long way off the networking opportunities provided by in-person events.

Even if it isn’t specifically marked as an organised activity, industry events naturally create opportunities for attendees to meet and network. Whether it’s at a specifically planned networking session or simply bumping into other attendees whilst getting a drink at the conference hotel bar, there are constant opportunities to meet with friends and current connections or strike up conversations with new acquaintances. But it’s not just the number of opportunities to network that’s key, it’s the value of face-to-face interaction. 

Networking behind a computer screen is less valuable than developing a relationship in person. Research, undertaken by the Virgin Group, found that 84% of business people prefer in-person meetings. Respondents pointed to their much better ability to build stronger, more meaningful relationships, as well as giving individuals the chance to better read body language and facial expressions. Furthermore, 95% said that face-to-face interaction is essential to maintaining long term business relationships. Virtual and online events are never going to be able to replicate this crucial element of exhibitions and conferences, therefore demand for in-person events will remain strong in a post-COVID-19 world. 

There’s no doubt that the outbreak on COVID-19 has decimated revenues within the exhibition industry. Not only have the organisers themselves taken a hit, but vendors looking to secure the bulk of their sales for the year have been left floundering. Regardless of industry, this public health crisis has forced parties involved on  all sides of the equation to rethink the traditional exhibition or trade show format. While events that have moved online have managed to deliver compelling versions of their in-person counterparts, those that have a more prominent networking function within their industry (as opposed to information dissemination) have no option but to press on with either a hybrid model, or an adapted traditional format. 

We won’t know until later in the year precisely how the appetite for these postponed or renewed shows has been affected. Here at Haig Barrett, we’ll report back later in the year with a review of the most prominent innovations borne out of this crisis as part of our ongoing insight presented by the Next20.