“When the world stopped, you kept going.” The slogan will greet tens of thousands of construction industry contractors, dealers and distributors who have paid up to $600 each to attend the World of Concrete trade show this month in Las Vegas — unless the Omicron variant of coronavirus forces a last-minute cancellation.
How many corporate exhibitions can themselves keep going in the new year is once again in doubt. Just as business executives had finally begun reaching for their conference lanyards again after months of restrictions, the fast-spreading Covid-19 strain has prompted another round of postponements.
At ExCeL, a venue in east London, the education technology fair Bett, gambling sector event ICE and eyewear exhibition 100% Optical — all of which are supposed to be go-to events in their respective sectors early this year — have been pushed back.
Some exhibitors have meanwhile withdrawn from shows that are still happening. Amazon, Meta and Twitter are among several tech groups that have pulled out of in-person appearances at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), although organisers are determined to press ahead with the event, which is due to start this week, also in Las Vegas.
Having survived previous coronavirus-induced restrictions and cancellations, battle-hardened executives behind some of the world’s biggest trade shows are trying to position their companies to take advantage once the pandemic finally subsides.
“Effectively, we have been scheduling, rescheduling, negotiating, renegotiating every three months for almost two years,” said Stephen Carter, chief executive of Informa, the world’s largest trade show organiser.
“It has been very demanding on our teams, and it’s been quite demanding on our relationships with venue partners and contractors.”
Even so, he added: “Customers have remained very committed to participating — when they’re able to.”
So confident is Carter in its prospects that he has identified events as one of Informa’s priority areas for expansion, alongside academic publishing.
This month, the FTSE 100 media company laid out plans to dispose of a portfolio of data and consultancy assets and niche publications estimated to be worth at least £1.7bn, and to redeploy a chunk of the funds in its events business.
Investors remain circumspect. Shares in Informa are almost 40 per cent lower than they were at the start of 2020, while Paris-listed GL Events is down 25 per cent over the same period and New York-listed Emerald Holding 62 per cent.
Nevertheless, before the emergence of Omicron there were encouraging signs for the sector that Zoom-weary delegates were keen to return.
Data from the Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR) show cancellation rates among US business-to-business exhibitions improved from 98 per cent in the second half of 2020 to 19 per cent in the third quarter of 2021.
Despite a slow start to the year and persistent concerns about coronavirus, CEIR estimates that 15.3m people attended such events in the US in 2021 — more than double the previous year, albeit less than half pre-pandemic levels.
“The snapback shows the model is strong,” said Paul Thandi, chief executive of NEC Group, owner of the UK’s National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham. Still, he added, since the spread of Omicron “exhibitors have become more risk-averse”.
“They are wary of spending thousands on stands, staffing costs and other ancillaries,” he said.
Events due to take place at the NEC in the new year that have been rescheduled include Lamma, an agricultural machinery show popular with farmers.
Despite the widespread cancellations, few large event organisers so far have run into serious financial difficulties, in part because their parent companies have interests in other sectors that have not been hit so badly by the pandemic.
One exception is Paris-based Comexposium, which spent much of the past year in a “safeguard procedure”, although it exited this in October after shareholders injected €110m into the business.
Some other organisers tapped shareholders for cash at the onset of the pandemic, helping them weather the storm. Informa raised £1bn in a placing last year, equivalent to about 20 per cent of its equity capital.
Furlough schemes and other forms of government support have been lifelines. In cases where authorities imposed restrictions preventing events from going ahead, insurance has also been crucial, despite sometimes-limited scope of cover.
About £65m worth of insurance payouts helped Hyve, another London-listed events organiser, return to profit in the year to the end of September.
Pressure on organisers’ cash flows was also less intense than it might otherwise have been since exhibitors typically paid up front, said Dan Assor, an events industry consultant.
He added that in some ways it was subcontractors — often smaller companies that provide equipment from lighting rigs to registration desks, as well as logistical support — that had been hardest hit.
“The supply chain has been decimated,” Assor said. “Lots of freelancers have disappeared.”
As in other industries disrupted by coronavirus, executives expect some changes to prove long-lasting.
Mark Shashoua, chief executive of Hyve, said he expected a shake-out of smaller trade shows. Even before the pandemic, he said, there had been a “gravitational pull” towards the largest event in any given sector — a trend that the pandemic had only accelerated.
“If the event and the sector was in the ascendancy before Covid, it’s recovering very fast,” he said. “If it was a second or third tier show, it’s not recovering.”
Sarah Simon, analyst at Berenberg, anticipates that the fragmented sector will consolidate. “Short-term, in certain markets, there’s going to be continued disruption, which I think will flush out more of the weaklings,” she said. “There’s quite a lot of medium-sized assets out there that could be of interest.”
Analysts said possible sellers might include Daily Mail and General Trust, which, as well as owning the UK’s biggest selling daily newspaper among other titles, also has an events business.
Its portfolio includes ADIPEC, an energy industry exhibition hosted by Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. DMGT was recently taken private by Lord Rothermere, who is said to be focused on the company’s publishing assets.
Companies such as Informa are also trying to more fully exploit the data generated by such events. They have long encouraged delegates to use specialist apps, yet recent health and safety requirements have made online registration compulsory in some cases. Organisers are trying to sell participants more related digital services, such as delegate matchmaking and post-event analytics.
Yet unlike conferences, or at least the onstage discussions that underpin them, trade shows cannot be easily recreated online. It is hard to feel the fabrics, as at the Pure London fashion show, or gauge the prospects for emerging mobile technology, as at MWC Barcelona, remotely.
“You can’t replicate face-to-face,” said Assor, adding that the shows had facilitated commerce since London’s Great Exhibition of 1851.
Chris Skeith, chief executive of the UK’s Association of Event Organisers, said the pitch remained straightforward. “The clue’s in the name,” he said. “They generate trade.”
“You get your finger on the pulse on everything that’s happening in your sector — all your competitors, customers, suppliers are in one place at one time. It’s an incredibly efficient way of doing business.”