If you’re one of the thousands of people who provide services for expos, trade shows, and conventions, coronavirus cancellations undoubtedly have you anxious about the future. After all, empty convention centers and limits on large gatherings certainly don’t bode well for business these days. Hang tight. As challenging as it is, this isn’t the first shock to the trade show industry, and it likely won’t be the last. We’ll bounce back—maybe bigger than ever. Here’s how I know and what we can do in the meantime. 

We’ve been here before.

Root causes may change, but economic downturns are a fact of life. A quick trip back in time helps me remember to take the long view on our current challenges. In June 2008, the world was slogging through a recession. The convention center where I was working at the time had seen a steep drop off in events—especially in the financial, technology, and healthcare industries. We were already working at 30% of our normal labor budgets. And one look at our future bookings told us it would likely stay that way for a while. Like most people, members of my team and I were struggling financially, and for the first time in nearly four years, I was preparing my resume for an inevitable job hunt. 

Because I was relatively new to the trade show industry, I was unfamiliar with its resilience. I honestly didn’t know if it would ever bounce back. At the time, I didn’t understand the economic fundamentals that drive the convention and events business. Now I get it. Expos, conventions, and gatherings of professionals are vital to businesses everywhere, all over the world. The industry won’t stay down for long.

How the last downturn made us better

Although I’ve always been committed to giving people the best experience possible, the 2008 downturn had the surprising upside of making us work even harder for our customers. By January of 2009, business was slowly picking up. Our sales managers had started booking new events for 2010 and 2011. We learned that three- and five-year contracts were going to be rare in the post-recession economy. 

Groups had discovered the hard way that the “liquidated damage fees” for the three years left on a five-year contract were very painful, and the new normal featured shorter-term agreements. One-year deals forced providers to fully prove their value every time a customer booked a show. No longer could they rely on the crutch of longer-term contracts to retain business. Competition was stiff, and the best in the business had to get better. 

What goes down must come up.

Starting with CES in 2010, the convention business came back bigger than ever. The best expo services leveraged the energy of that surge to improve customer service and enhance how they collaborate with venues to make every event a total success. For the next eight years, the trade show business continued to grow. Large companies like Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Oracle, SAP, HPE, and more drove complex, multi-million dollar events that spanned multiple properties. Traditional trade shows like CES, ConExpo, ShotShow, and HIMSS have grown into colossal events with six-figure attendee totals. 

In my corner of the industry, the number and scale of these shows meant doubling my staff of technicians. We also invested heavily in technology and process upgrades. In addition, we reinforced our commitment to partner with customers and their chosen vendors to deliver successful events. This increased trust and communication led to better collaborative planning, problem-solving, and mutual satisfaction for every event.

How can we maximize the upside right now? 

The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted the first half of 2020, and how quickly the convention business and the broader economy rebound is hard to predict. But successful businesses always figure out how to turn a challenge into an opportunity, and that’s the key here, too. The rush to implement online or virtual meeting technology, for example, may have you worried that no one will ever be in the same room again, let alone the same high-capacity conference center. But worrying that ramping up remote access technologies will threaten your business is the wrong approach. 

The current disruption gives our industry a chance to reevaluate the way we engage with customers in planning and executing trade shows. We’re still in the business of connecting people: buyers to vendors, employees to employers, inventors to manufacturers, and so on. While in-person communication will always be the most effective and powerful way to do that, now is a great time to see how new VR (virtual reality) and other remote access technologies can enhance the trade show experience for everyone—now and in the future. That means a renewed focus on partnerships between event venues and their customers as we work to integrate new technologies for stellar experiences.

People will always need to meet.

Of course, I am neither an expert economist nor an epidemiologist. I cannot predict the path of the current pandemic, and I cannot say how quickly the overall economy will return to full health. However, I have been in the trade show business a very long time. I’m confident that, in time, we will see packed exhibition halls and thousands of lanyard-wearing attendees exchanging business cards. 

In the meantime, now is an opportunity for us to find ways to adapt and innovate to make conventions and expos better able to withstand difficult conditions and recover more quickly. As bookings accelerate for the summer of 2020 and beyond, we can become more agile, improve processes, and include technology solutions that can enhance trade show experiences for both good times and bad. 

Maybe we’ll greet each other with an elbow-bump instead of a handshake, but people will always need to meet. And the trade show business will be there to make it possible.

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