Editorial Note: Originally published in the August 2022 issue of Trade Show Executive magazine.
It has been a busy past few months as I – along with many of you – have returned to exhibitions and events that were sorely missed during the pandemic, and I am pleased with what I am seeing in the industry. Exhibitions are experiencing an upswing toward our recovery goals of meeting and/or exceeding the performance levels we had in 2019. The feedback I’ve received at the in-person events I’ve attended is that, depending on the industry, the progress being made is very positive.
The Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR) released its annual update on the state of U.S. business-to-business (B2B) exhibitions this past June that supports what my colleagues are reporting. According to CEIR, the U.S. B2B exhibition industry contributed $76 million in business sales and $43 billion in GDP in 2021. This contribution consists of direct, indirect and induced effects of B2B exhibitions.
In addition, B2B exhibitions supported 1.2 million jobs (full- and part-time jobs plus self-employed persons) in 2021. Last year, the average exhibition metrics such as net square footage, exhibiting companies, attendees and revenue declined about 67% from the pre-pandemic level. However, once the industry fully recovers, the contribution to business sales, GDP and employment is projected to increase dramatically.
The consensus is that live, in-person events are irreplaceable, and it has become very evident that these exhibitions and events were tremendously missed. In fact, many of today’s shows are experiencing a higher return-on-investment (ROI) for exhibitors and attendees in addition to embracing the creativity and growth that simply cannot be achieved via digital channels.
It is not to say that digital enhancements do not hold merit, for they will continue to augment our exhibitions and events. The lessons learned during the time that digital events were the only option for our industry will allow us to grow markets that we were not able to do in the past due to geographic challenges and budget limitations. Therefore, we must embrace hybrid options but also focus on growing back our in-person industry – which brings up some of the issues we need to address.
Workforce development remains a major challenge for our industry as we are still underemployed based upon the levels of success we are enjoying in 2022. Most organizations that are running shows – venues, hotels, convention centers, etc. – are at 75% to 80% of staffing levels compared to 2019 but, in some cases, running at the same business levels they were in 2019. Facilitating the increase of qualified and skilled workers is a top priority.
Along those lines, re-skilling our workforce is also a hot topic. Smaller staffs are faced with higher workloads and therefore adapting by learning new skills. This ties into the digital transformation our industry is facing. For example, IAEE has embraced a full review of a digital transformation project that is in play, and I know my peers are also looking at their digital assets and figuring out what needs to be enhanced, improved and possibly changed. Digital is a critical element of successfully moving forward.
Last, but not least, global re-engagement and growing our international communities to where they were pre-pandemic is also on the short list. Colleagues with whom I’ve spoken, both on the organizer and service provider sides of our ecosystem, express very strong yet cautious optimism for the near future. The target is to finish strong in 2022, continue growing into 2023 and, as indicated by CEIR research as a good possibility, achieve full recovery in 2024.
In the meantime, we must keep moving forward, stay positive and remain engaged. I strongly urge you to participate in the advocacy efforts that are being supported by IAEE and eight other organizations via the Exhibitions and Conferences Alliance (ECA) which can be found at ecalliance.us.
Onward and upward!
David DuBois, CMP-F, CAE, FASAE, CTA
President & CEO