Crushed by the pandemic, conventions make a cautious comeback
In the pre-COVID era, trade events __ from small college conferences to giant trade shows like CES __ regularly drew over a billion attendees each year. The pandemic abruptly interrupted these global gatherings, emptying convention centers and closing hotels.
More than a year later, in-person meetings are resuming. In late August, 30,000 masked attendees gathered in Las Vegas for ASD Market Week, a retail trade show. In Chicago, the Black Women’s Expo recently held the largest event in its history, with 432 vendors and thousands of masked attendees.
“People are cautious, but they’re happy to be able to go out and network with other people,” said Dr. Barbara Hall, whose company, JBlendz Communications, was among the exhibitors at the show.
Yet it could be several years __ if ever __ before the conferences draw large crowds before the pandemic. Many countries and companies are still restricting travelreducing attendance at major events like the Canton Trade Fair in China, which required 26,000 vendors to showcase their wares virtually in April.
Health issues also remain. Industry keen to avoid another black eye like Biogen’s leadership conference, a February 2020 event in Boston that was ultimately linked to 300,000 COVID cases.
The New York Auto Show, which regularly draws more than a million people, was canceled two weeks before its start date in August due to concerns over the delta variant. A construction machinery fair in Beijing, which normally attracts 150,000 visitors, has been postponed for two months until November.
Experts say one of the big lessons of 2020 is that much of what happens at conferences and trade shows can happen virtually, reducing the need for large in-person events.
Jaiprit Virdi, assistant professor at the University of Delaware, said online mobile events make them more accessible to people with disabilities and those who cannot afford to travel. Virdi, who is deaf, said she was relieved that in-person conferences required masks for safety. But the masks create serious obstacles for her, as she relies on lip reading.
“We don’t need to go back to how things were before COVID, but rather learn from the past year and a half to improve how we run these spaces for everyone,” Virdi said in an email.
Paddy Cosgrave, CEO of Web Summit, a technology conference for startups, said last year’s virtual-only event was cheaper __ people only paid $100 to attend, compared to $700 previously __ and was attracting more participants from developing countries. But the participants also felt that something was missing.
“In-person meetings offer a quality of interaction that no technology can yet replicate,” Cosgrave said.
This year, the Web Summit is expecting 40,000 attendees when it meets in Lisbon, Portugal in November. Vaccines or a negative COVID-19 test will be required to attend, but masks are optional.
The Render-Atlanta software engineering conference, scheduled for mid-September, also requires a vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test to enter. To make attendees feel even safer, the conference has struck a deal with a sponsor to provide daily testing for its 400 attendees. Customizable ___ masks at a __ decoration station will be required. Participants can also wear black and white wristbands showing their level of comfort with social interaction. Dots mean they’re ok with it, stripes mean “stay away”.
Justin Samuels, Render-Atlanta’s experience manager, said it was worth gathering in person. Render-Atlanta is the only black-owned software engineering conference with a focus on culture that doesn’t translate to a Zoom screen, Samuels said.
“The real art of human interaction has to happen in person,” Samuels said.
Much hinges on resuming in-person meetings. Before the pandemic, conferences and trade shows generated more than $1 trillion in direct spend and drew 1.5 billion attendees each year worldwide, according to the Events Industry Council, a trade group.
The group has not yet calculated the impact of the virus on a global scale. But the Center for Exhibition Industry Research, which studies the economic impact of business-to-business trade shows in the United States, said these events alone are expected to generate $105 billion in direct and indirect spending in 2020. Instead, that plunged to $24 billion. CEIR does not expect a return to growth for the industry until 2023.
Chicago’s McCormick Place, the largest convention center in the United States, laid off 90% of its 2,800 workers last year after 234 events were canceled, said Larita Clark, CEO of the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority. One of the resort’s two hotels, the Marriott Marquis Chicago, was temporarily closed; the other, the Hyatt Regency Chicago, saw its occupancy rate drop by as much as 10%.
The economic losses extend well beyond the exhibition complexes. Fern, a 112-year-old Cincinnati company, builds exhibits and other infrastructure for 1,400 events in a typical year. But for most of last year and early this year, its revenue fell more than 90%, said Aaron Bludworth, president and CEO of Fern.
“It was a lot more brutal than anything I’ve experienced in my career,” Bludworth said.
Bludworth doesn’t expect his business to fully recover until 2023. But he’s been surprised by the demand he’s seeing for the fall, when his company hosts several hundred shows. He’s had a few requests for help with virtual presentations, he said, but the demand for in-person events is higher.
“Maybe you can do education virtually, but when a buyer and a seller connect and go out and have dinner, that can’t happen virtually,” he said. “Our community realizes that we need to come together and sell products and make this business a reality.”
Steve Hill, CEO and Chairman of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, said 2022 is shaping up to be a good year for the industry. But he acknowledges that much will depend on the situation around COVID-19 and the lifting of restrictions on international travel. Foreigners can make up 20% to 30% of attendees at major city events, he said.
Hill thinks the virtual convention elements are here to stay. They give shows another revenue stream and help them grow subscribers, he said. But Hill thinks enough people will continue to come in person that hybrid events won’t hurt hotels and restaurants in convention cities.
“The shows will return to 100% attendance. People need the in-person aspect of a show,” he said.
But Sherrif Karamat, president and CEO of the Professional Convention Management Association, isn’t so sure, especially as more convention-goers question the environmental impact of travel. Karamat is excited about the prospect of virtual conferences bringing the world together.
“Learning shouldn’t be limited to one channel. Professional networking shouldn’t be limited to one channel,” he said.
Karamat says the pandemic is already reshaping the convention industry. Organizers are thinking more deeply about the importance of their conferences and the results they want to achieve, he said, which will lead to more meaningful gatherings.
“I’m very optimistic,” he said. “I feel like we’re going to take this a lot more seriously.”
AP Writers Kelvin Chan in London, David Koenig in Dallas, Joe McDonald in Beijing and Teresa Crawford in Chicago contributed.