The COVID-19 pandemic has meant sudden disruption for trade show and conference organizers, and its impacts are likely to persist long after the country reopens for business.
Based on a survey of 164 executives, new data from the Center for Exhibition Industry Research sheds some light on how B2B events organizers are responding to the crisis, and the extent to which they foresee it impacting their businesses in the second half of the year and beyond.
Among U.S. trade shows originally planned to be held from March through June, CEIR found that only 42% have been rescheduled for later in 2020. Of those, nearly two-thirds of organizers predict they’ll draw fewer attendees and fewer exhibitors at make-up events in the fall, leading to significant declines in revenue.
August and September will be the most popular months for rescheduled events, the survey indicated, followed by October and November. Only 22% of respondents said they’re holding a rescheduled event in December.
Of those who have had to cancel events, 69% said they’re adding some sort of virtual offering to make up for it, with the most popular format being online educational sessions.
Asked how they’re responding in the interim, an overwhelming majority of respondents said they’re cutting costs and lowering revenue projections. Sixteen percent said they’ve implemented pay cuts, impacting, on average, 10% of employees, while less than 10% said they’ve furloughed or laid off employees—although it’s worth noting that some of these figures have likely risen since the first two weeks of April, when the survey was fielded.
Should shelter-in-place orders persist into July, only 52% of organizers said they’ll be able to continue without reducing payroll, either through salary cuts or layoffs. And among those who have already reduced pay, 46% said pay cuts will last for another three or more months, and another 42% said they aren’t sure when they’ll be lifted.
→ Full results of the survey can be accessed for free here.
But amid all of the troubling prognostications, there’s room for progress, and perhaps even cautious optimism.
Discussing the survey results on a CEIR webinar, Jenn Heinold, SVP of events at Access Intelligence (Folio:‘s parent company), recommended that in the short term, events rescheduled for the fall make use of online channels to engage and provide value to attendees or exhibitors who are unwilling or unable to attend.
“I think the way to overcome these challenges is a virtual component,” she said, predicting that hybrid digital and in-person events will likely become a permanent fixture even after the pandemic. “I feel really strongly that we cannot leave a part of our market under-served. For those who are unable to travel to our events, the best way to serve them is online.”
For events that can’t be postponed, a fully digital replacement offers flexibility, Heinold said, allowing what might normally be an in-person event running across two full days to be broken into a week-long series of shorter sessions.
Later in the webinar, CEIR’s resident economist, Allen Shaw, pointed out that hopes for a quick economic recovery are highly dependent on both testing capacity and the rate of confirmed cases.
Referring to the White House’s three-phase proposal for reopening the economy on a state-by-state basis, Shaw said trade shows would likely fall into phase three, which permits large venues to reopen if they adhere to “limited social distancing protocols.”
Heinold said that when trade shows can resume, organizers must focus on taking the necessary steps to ensure that in-person attendees feel safe and that the trade show industry as a whole will need to set standards around social distancing guidelines.
Under a best-case scenario, in which confirmed cases reached their peak in mid-April and states can begin to reopen starting in early May, B2B exhibitions could partially resume by August, Shaw said.