When will large scale B2B trade shows and exhibitions return to normal pre-COVID levels? That is the question on the minds of venues, show organizers, exhibit companies, suppliers to the industry and brands eager to connect with clients and prospects face-to-face. On September 22, 2020, the Center for Exhibition and Industry Research (CEIR) held the Predict conference which is the Annual Exhibition Industry Economic Outlook event.
Due to COVID-19, this year’s event was held virtually. Over 150 industry executives took part in the all-day event which included presentations, networking, sponsor videos and a panel discussion.
The CEIR Predict conference has existed to provide event industry leaders with insights and trends to help strategically plan. According the CEIR CEO Cathy Breden, “This year’s program focused on what the near future may hold for the B2B exhibitions industry given the impact of COVID-19.” The big, burning question that everyone wanted to know was “when will large scale B2B events return?” And the answer is…no one knows for sure. While there are encouraging signs in other parts of the world, there is general agreement that the U.S. exhibitions industry will be the last to recover. The projections range from small regional events partially resuming late this year with a gradual increase of activity (size and frequency) throughout 2021 to perhaps another full year with virtually no in-person events.
Complicating or confounding the return of large, in-person events are the decisions and policies around the size of gatherings and quarantining requirements determined at the state level. Additionally, many companies have implemented business travel bans at least through the end of the year and others have issued bans “until further notice.” Nancy Drapeau, PRC; Vice President of Research, CEIR stated that an effective vaccine and low-cost rapid testing are keys to a faster recovery.
Amid all the projections and uncertainty, there were bright spots with regard to the face-to-face events business. According to research presented by John Gerzema, CEO, Harris Insights & Analytics/The Harris Poll, Americans miss social activities and gatherings. And those missing interactions translates to business events as well. The importance of connecting with friends and colleagues has increased in importance since the COVID-19 crisis curtailed travel and forced many to work from home. Networking and knowledge transfer have also increased in importance. However, people’s expectations for what happens at an in-person event; for example socializing, giveaways, or networking, have all declined over the course of the pandemic.
And with the work from home orders and travel bans, more Americans have experienced online virtual business events. And expectations of those events are rising. According to the Harris Poll research, as presented by John Gerzema, virtual events are getting better with fewer people reporting tech glitches, difficulty recreating the experience of in-person and lack of personal connection than in the early days of the pandemic. However, screen fatigue and expectations are areas where event producers need to focus. Complaints about how difficult it is to maintain attention for long periods, content being too long and content being boring have all increased since the Harris Poll April survey.
At the end of the day, whether due to personal concerns, company travel bans or state government mandates, face-to-face events are mostly not happening. And while they have improved, virtual events cannot fully replicate the experiential value of an in-person event. There are too many variables for the experts making predictions about when large in-person B2B events will return to provide much certainty. But one thing is clear, humans crave the interaction and connection that only in-person can provide.