By Theresa Hegel | asicentral.com
It’s been a roller-coaster year for the trade show business. Early on, many big shows were a no-go – either canceled, postponed or held virtually. By the summer, large-scale, in-person events were making a comeback – with ASI Chicago in July kicking things off in the promotional products industry.
Then, the delta variant brought a spike in COVID cases across the country, and with it a wave of fresh cancellations and postponements. The New York Auto Show, planned for August, was canceled. PRINTING United, originally planned for early October at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, was nixed due to uncertainties related to COVID-19. According to show organizers, the spike in cases “created a set of conditions that do not give us a reasonable chance to deliver an even marginally successful trade show event of a certain magnitude where the showcasing of equipment is the primary driver.”
In fact, since January 2021, 29 events have been canceled at the Orange County Convention Center, resulting in an economic impact of $868 million. Another 25 events were rescheduled, with an economic impact of $645 million, according to stats on the convention center’s website. The San Diego Convention Center had a similar list of cancellations, with the most notable being the famed San Diego Comic-Con – though there will be a smaller, in-person Comic-Con Special Edition at the center in November.
Despite these setbacks, trade show professionals remain bullish about the industry, and promotional products suppliers that specialize in signage and display say they’re busier than they’ve ever been.
“We’re still kind of drinking from a firehose. When the market opened, it really opened with a vengeance. We’ve been inundated with event-related demand for displays and exhibits since really the beginning of Q2.” Natalie Whited, Orbus Exhibit & Display Group (asi/75209)
“The vast majority of shows are going forward,” says David Audrain, CEO of the Society of Independent Show Organizers (SISO). “Demand is there. For every show you hear that’s being canceled, there’s dozens and dozens more that are going ahead.”
SISO, which has produced six of its own events in the last six months, only had to cancel one, according to Audrain. And Emerald Exhibitions, which organizes the decorated-apparel show Impressions Expo among others, has been having a “massively busy second half,” producing more than 20 events in August alone, Audrain notes.
Demand for trade show displays is still way up, though supply chain issues have made the ordering process longer than in pre-COVID days.
“We’re still kind of drinking from a firehose,” says Natalie Whited, vice president of marketing at Woodridge, IL-headquartered Orbus Exhibit & Display Group (asi/75209). “When the market opened, it really opened with a vengeance. We’ve been inundated with event-related demand for displays and exhibits since really the beginning of Q2.”
MODdisplays, a portable trade show display company based in Harrisonburg, VA, has also been seeing record growth, according to Jarrett Lambert, client experience manager. The company had been growing about 30% each year since 2018. Then COVID hit, and in 2020, MODdisplays lost 95% of its business. In May of this year, though, business activity returned. “We’ve had three record-breaking months,” Lambert says. “It’s been wild.”
Many in-person trade shows this year – and next year as well – look a little different than events in years past. CES, the massive tech show typically held in Las Vegas every January, announced in mid-August that it would be requiring in-person attendees to provide proof of COVID-19 vaccination.
“Based on today’s science, we understand vaccines offer us the best hope for stopping the spread of COVID-19,” said Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of CTA, the organization that runs CES, in a press release. “We all play a part in ending the pandemic through encouraging vaccinations and implementing the right safety protocols. We are taking on our responsibility by requiring proof of vaccination to attend CES 2022 in Las Vegas.”
CTA also noted that it would follow state and local guidelines and recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As of now, masks are required in all public indoor spaces in Vegas.
“There’s definitely a trend toward mandatory vaccination for some of the larger shows in particular,” Audrain says. Some of it has to do with local and regional requirements, and some of it has to do with the comfort level of a particular community a trade show serves, he says.
“All of the major show organizers are of the same mindset,” Audrain says. “Trade shows have been shown to be extremely safe to attend. Our position is that we follow the needs and requirements of the city and venue we’re in. If Vegas requires masks, we implement them. If they don’t, we simply encourage them.”
“We as organizers don’t want to be the mask police,” he adds.
Another difference with this year’s trade shows? Attendance has been markedly down for many events. For instance, the World of Concrete show, held at the Las Vegas Convention Center in June had 650 companies exhibiting across 300,000 square feet. The show drew more than 18,000 attendees over three days. In February 2020, the same show drew about 54,000 attendees and 1,310 companies exhibiting across more than 700,000 square feet, according to a case study published by SISO.
Though attendance is lower, many attendees are ready and willing to pull out their checkbooks. “The people at the events right now are very serious about wanting to make deals and sales,” Lambert says.
Audrain agrees, giving an example from a recent firefighter convention he attended in Indianapolis. A fire chief he spoke with there said his department would typically send eight people to the FDIC Expo, but in 2021, they brought half that many to the show. “Of the four people, he was the chief procurement officer and had in his hand a purchase order for $2.5 million for new breathing equipment,” Audrain says. “In terms of impact for the show, it didn’t matter that there were only four instead of eight because they spent a bunch of money.”
It was a similar story at the Impressions Expo in Atlantic City, NJ, in August. Though the show was smaller, “The crowd is amazing,” said Paul Zingone of Bethlehem, PA-based equipment company Vastex International at the time. “There are a lot of buyers.”
Kevin Walsh, president of Top 40 supplier Showdown Displays (asi/87188) based in Brooklyn Center, MN, raves about the attendance and enthusiasm at ASI Chicago in July. “We were delighted with the level of turnout and the number of people who actually came through our booth,” he says. “It was the highest turnout we’ve ever seen at a Chicago show.”
The supply chain issues and labor shortages that have been plaguing just about every industry during COVID have had an effect on trade shows as well. Custom and semi-custom booth setups are taking a minimum of 14 to 21 days to produce, depending on the complexity, Whited says. “The days of ordering a custom inline exhibit and getting that in a week, those days are behind us for a little while,” she adds.
Suppliers are doing what they can to combat the supply chain issues. Showdown Displays, for example, purchased two facilities in Europe in 2018 and has been working to reshore there to avoid expedited air freight costs from Asia, Walsh says. “It’s made a lot of sense for us to look for alternative resources,” he adds, “so we’re not at the whim of the existing Asian supply chain.”
Despite the inherent uncertainties of putting together a trade show booth during a pandemic, signage suppliers have been advising clients to be proactive with their planning.
Says Lambert of MODdisplays: “We’re telling people the exact same things: If you know you’re going to order a booth and your graphics and art are relevant for next year, get the order in.”