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Significant Recovery Expected for Exhibitions as Soon as Late 2021: Industry Trade Group UFI Study

Skift Take

Does the fate of the exhibition industry rest on the successful rollout of the vaccine? The latest data from UFI certainly shows a correlation, but according to UFI CEO Kai Hattendorf, exhibitions are already safe — we just need to get everyone on board.

Unfortunately, 2021 has not been off to a great start. New cases are surging across North America and Europe, owing in part to holiday get-togethers and in part to increasingly contagious (and potentially more virulent) variants of the virus.

“It depends on vaccines” has become a common reprise for every eventprof in the unfortunate position of having to crystal-ball the recovery timeline for a captive audience.

But vaccines may not be the silver bullet the industry was hoping for. For one thing, new variants could potentially compromise the efficacy of frontrunners like Pfizer and Moderna, which have already supplied millions of doses around the world. For another, rollouts have been slower than planned even in first-tier economies like the US and UK.

For Kai Hattendorf, CEO of UFI, vaccines are not the end-all-be-all of the industry’s recovery. They never have been. UFI’s position is that planned events have always had the capacity for Covid safety, and its advocacy was integral to the formal distinction Germany made between banned mass gatherings and permitted planned events. Hattendorf maintains that the bigger challenge, therefore, is convincing everyone of that.

Pursuant to this goal, UFI has announced the 26th edition of its semi-annual report, the UFI Global Exhibition Barometer. The Barometer is intended to take the global pulse of the exhibition industry and serve as a marketing resource for exhibition industry advocacy. This edition focuses on Covid’s economic impact on the industry and the potential for recovery.


The Report

The study aggregates data submitted by a relatively small sample size of 457 companies across 64 countries, including for the first time in this edition Peru and France.

Europe and Asia make up about ⅔ of the participating companies (285). The American market is represented by 17 respondents, and other major economies have similar representation (Brazil at 14, Germany at 16). For the purpose of analysis, responses were aggregated into six regions with some interesting effects on what the data might suggest about major economies within them.


    The Data Projects Optimism and Resilience

    Per the Barometer, “in all regions, a majority of companies expect both ‘local’ and ‘national’ exhibitions to open again by the end of June 2021 latest” with international events starting to come back by the end of the year.

    Despite their challenges, vaccines are likely driving the exhibition industry’s hope for the start of a comeback in 2021. While not explicitly listed as an option, 64 percent of respondents cited the “Readiness of exhibiting partners and visitors to participate again” when asked “What do you believe would most help the ‘bounce back’ of exhibitions?” Lifting current travel restrictions came in second place at 63 percent. Both of these hinge on neutralizing the threat of Covid.

    This optimism is reflected in a global expectation of rebounding revenue, with an expected 66 percent increase in North America and 74 percent increase in Europe from 2020’s revenue. If you look at data form 2019, the bounceback is still significant, with an expected recovery of between 55-60 percent of 2019 revenues by the end of 2021.


    Virtual Elements Will Continue to Enhance Face-to-Face Events

    Digital event elements have made an indelible impact on events, but 64 percent of respondents agree that “COVID-19 confirms the value of face-to-face events” and anticipate a quick recovery. This is likely due to the fact that the value of trade shows is difficult to convey in a virtual format.

    Nevertheless, 63 percent of companies anticipate “less international ‘physical’ exhibitions, and overall, less participants” and 80-82 percent perceive “a push towards hybrid events, more digital elements at events.” Only 14 percent believe virtual event technology has the potential to replace traditional in-person trade shows.


    However, There Is Still a Need for Advocacy

    In the media briefing where UFI announced the new report, Hattendorf reinforced that events are part of the solution rather than the problem. Helping the exhibition/conference industry will benefit everyone, he contends.

    Government support across the world is inconsistent, and advocacy is essential. Less than half the participating companies received financial support, and a majority of those didn’t get enough to cover 10 percent of their 2019 overall costs. Moreover, “54 percent of companies had to reduce their workforce, half of them by more than 25 percent.”


    The Path Back to In-Person Shows

    Precisely because the future of the pandemic is so hard to predict, Hattendorf emphasized the importance of putting in place policies to allow for things to go forward regardless of what happens with the vaccines.

    For example, UFI has been advocating a “testing over quarantine” policy that would make business travel more logistically viable, along with a single, consistent way to substantiate testing status (i.e. Covid passports). He is also pushing for the classification of business travellers as “essential,” as Germany and Italy have done, in order to bypass restrictions that are meant to prevent unnecessary (read: leisure) travel.

    When asked about benchmarks for measuring the progress of the industry’s recovery, Hattendorf offered the following broad steps:

    1. Prove that events can be run safely.

    2. Get the green light from authorities and get “testing over quarantine” in place.

    3. Build back the confidence and trust from attendees.

    4. Rebuild confidence in a positive ROI for exhibitors.

    Regarding the last point, Hattendorf cautioned against looking at whether the biggest 5-10 percent of exhibitors have changed their travel policies. Rather, he recommends focussing on the 85-90 percent of small- to medium-sized companies for whom exhibitions are the backbone of their marketing — those that “thrive and die with access to show floors.” Their return will be far more significant.



    Vaccines will likely turn out to be a welcome salve for a wounded event industry, but any current timeline for recovery that hinges on them is uncertain at best. UFI’s approach is to prioritize what the event industry can control. Planned events, the argument goes, can be done safely according to the guidelines, and the proof is in the pudding.

    But if that’s the case, the fact that their Barometer report maps the recovery timeline onto the planned vaccine rollouts of major economies suggests that they have a lot more advocacy work to do. The ongoing mission for the exhibition industry will be to change not only the firm policies limiting physical events, but also the hearts and minds of all the stakeholders involved.