Germany and China just gave the go-ahead to restart trade shows. As planners and owners rush to restart their events, will attendees show up?
Michael Webber attended CES in Las Vegas on Jan 21, 2020. He was part of that large group of attendees that caught the ‘CES flu,’ the bug that every year attendees catch at the event. This year the CES flu was different, particularly harsh, with dry cough, shortness of breath and high fever.
A few weeks ago, Webber’s antibody test came back positive for Covid-19.
A few days later, actresses Ashley Jackson and Paige McGarvin attended the Sundance Film Festival. They too fell ill, thinking they caught the ‘Sundance flu.’
While they haven’t been tested yet for antibodies, the connections are similar. The pattern is clear, and it makes sense. When people gather, viruses spread.
With more events under scrutiny, the industry is also starting to evaluate the post-pandemic world of events. Many seem to be bullish about an industry comeback in the next three months.
Surely enough, the next six months seem to be quite complicated.
On one hand, we have the strong need to go back to normal, the opportunities that come with revenge attendance, the desire to heal a bleeding industry, ‘the first to go, the last to come back,’ as many define it.
On the other hand, a nightmare of logistical issues, physical distancing challenges, travel difficulties, and the short-term rivalry of virtual. Not to mention the uncertainty surrounding the real health risk involved.
Now more than ever, event professionals need clarity. In the absence of crystal balls to help us navigate the uncertainty we are experiencing, we are faced with unprecedented risks.
It is safe to say that this is the real unchartered territory of the event industry. Up until now, event owners canceled or postponed. The stakes are now higher, the risk is higher. It could literally be a matter of life or death.
Mass Gatherings Are At The Center of the Storm
Every country is interpreting lockdown easing differently, but one common element persists: The ban on mass gatherings.
The research to support social distancing has evolved over the course of the pandemic, but crowded accommodation, travel, and multi-day events do increase the chance of spreading the virus. Generalizing, though, would be incorrect.
This is the reason why UFI, the Global Association of the Exhibition Industry, together with AUMA, the Association of German Trade Fair Industry, were able to successfully lobby the German government to differentiate exhibitions from mass gatherings (in one of the few strong displays of association leadership at the government level we have witnessed during these horrible times).
This is a substantial win for trade shows — what Kai Hattendorf, CEO of UFI, calls ‘the qualification to the Olympics.’
He is leading UFI on a journey to develop a framework of conditions that would permit trade shows to operate as governments release the limitations on the size of gatherings.
Shortly after our interview, UFI published the news that China is giving the approval to hold ‘conferences and exhibitions in indoor areas,’ adding ‘if necessary.’
Hopes up, right? Not so fast.
Event Planners are Rebuilding, But Will Attendees Come?
Everyone in the industry is celebrating the reopening of Germany and China. And quite rightly so. After months of bad news, finally something positive to focus on.
Nevertheless, we need to agree that we won’t go back to how things were in January 2020.
The idea that launching an event website will result in high attendance is close to nonsensical.
Take Sweden, where no lockdown was implemented but local businesses such as bars and restaurants are still struggling. Nobody wants to get the virus, and they’re limiting their out-of-home movements to essential activities.
A recent survey of 2,000 US residents at the end of April from SAP’s Qualtrics states that:
Event if a vaccine were available, still 39% would want social distancing enforced. The next six months present themselves to event planners like a force 10 storm looks to a ship captain about to leave the port.
Expert planners will face it brazenly. They will venture out, and if they make it to the other side, they will be among the few who get to enjoy the benefits.
That does not mean that it will be a smooth ride. Sailors will feel sick and your ship will undergo severe stress.
Interviewed by CNBC, Dr Ashish Jha stated that people understand it is dangerous to attend events while new cases are still arising.
The stakes are higher than they’ve ever been. Running events in the next six months means:
- Implementing logistics that you have never faced before
- Facing the insurance and legal risk of exposing attendees to a deadly disease
- Persuading attendees that there is no risk in attending
- Convincing sponsors and speakers that it’s safe to attend
Once cleared, what type of experience are we left with? This is the question nobody is really asking.
In an industry where everybody seemed to agree that ‘experience design’ was the new event planning, it is fair to ask how wearing face masks, keeping attendees six feet apart, being radiated by UV lights, or constantly scanned by a thermal camera is going to affect our event objectives.
Two Types of Attendees
Hattendorf brought up a very interesting point about who trade shows cater to. 70% of businesses attending are small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that need to be there. They rely on that one event to do business for the whole year.
There is no question that this audience will want to attend at all costs. They are strongly motivated to do so.
In the second category, we have large company employees or teams for whom attending is a ‘nice to have.’ They may travel to attend because ‘everybody is there,’ but when nobody goes to the event because of a virus that could kill you or your vulnerable loved ones, their propensity to attend falls to zero.
Event professionals will need to understand what percentage of their attendee base is made of one type or the other.
Moreover, they will need to assess whether going through the struggle of planning what seems more like a science experiment than a live experience is worth the hassle, especially considering that social distancing and a lack of confidence might slash the normal attendance by 60% (if not considerably more).
High Risk, High Rewards. Kinda.
One of the most interesting insights from my conversation with Hattendorf was how he described a renewed ‘back to basics’ of trade shows.
If only really motivated attendees show up, the event becomes extremely effective, trimming all the fat like expensive restaurants and fancy activations. Back to business.
This is a great opportunity for the industry, and if we have scientific proof that the measures in place at a convention center level work, it could be the dawn of a new, more focused event industry.
In the same fashion, we may think that being the only event running in August will bring us herds of attendees for lack of better alternatives. And that may well be the case. After all, if you can get attendees over the hurdle of trusting the event to be safe, revenge attending will happen.
The question is whether it’s worth it to try. Will you be able to face another cancellation or postponement? What happens if one of your attendees catches the ‘[Insert Your Event] Flu’?
In essence, if you want to rush things and host an event in June, July or August, be our guest — but the road ahead is very uncertain. In the best-case scenario, you may experience a kumbaya moment as a concentration of highly motivated attendees benefits from a productive event, signaling the return to live events that everyone is craving.
In the worst, you could end up participating in the sickness of one or more of your attendees, inviting legal liability, and further sewing mistrust in social distancing events that delays the recovery of the industry. Caution is key.
The Facts We Have
What should help event professionals make better decisions today is to look at the patterns of what happened in late February.
Before mass gatherings were banned, many events were already being canceled. Large companies started to pull their attendance and sponsorship, and that had a snowball effect on the whole industry.
Relying on government approval to meet won’t be enough for some events. If the US and the rest of the EU follow Germany and China in allowing events to reopen, we won’t have a full room. At least in the next three months.
Unfortunately, this is what is happening today:
- Facebook and Microsoft are holding off on live events larger than 50 people until June/July 2021.
- Facebook is also allowing employees to work from home until the end of 2020.
- Dreamforce in November has been canceled.
- Live Nation announced that things will go back to normal in 2021, without even mentioning 2020 in their grim earnings call.
- Informa shared that they are assuming zero revenue in the second quarter.
These are the painful facts of the event industry today. Facts that show caution across the board. It is a trend not only driven by large companies; independent planners and small agencies are also on board.
Some comments from planners that prefer to stay anonymous speak of “irresponsible clients that simply don’t care” or being “surprised to have shows that still want to move forward in Q3.”
A survey of 1286 event professionals we carried during our Managing the Virtual Experience event indicated that 47% of planners forecasted a comeback of their event in the fourth quarter, and 38% weren’t anticipating a return until 2021. Only 13% expected to return to work in the third quarter this year. This is a clear signal of the reality of the industry.
This is confirmed by a recent survey by Freeman where 39% of event marketers (the majority of the sample) see a comeback in the next 4 to 6 months and 22% are ‘not sure’. The same survey indicates that a vaccine is the leading factor that would improve the confidence of attending live events (52%).
These voices and data echo the sentiment of many planners and suppliers that feel unsafe going back to work under the looming cloud of a virus that may be declining in some areas, but is growing by over 60% in some US states.
How to Face the Next Six Months
Caution should be the number one priority for event professionals evaluating their event strategy over the next six months.
- Keep looking at this timeline. It will give you an idea of the risk you are facing.
- If you feel you are in a safe position to host your event (safety standards are met), consider that attendance may still be impacted, jeopardizing the profitability of your event.
- Do not rely on international travel vis-à-vis event attendance. This seems to be a quite remote possibility at the time of writing.
- If you want to venture into the second quarter, consider serious risks that may arise from a lack of testing, a ban on gatherings of more than 10 still present in most impacted countries, and legal liability for attendees who may contract the virus.
- Virtual events are the safest strategy for business continuity in the next sixth months.
- Consider breaking down large events into smaller, hybrid events that carry considerably less risk.
- Evaluate the damage that further postponement or cancellation can bring to your brand.
- Ponder the impact of content planning with speakers unwilling or unable to travel.