CEIR survey research and index results released yesterday indicate recovery of the events industry will accelerate. The intent is obviously there, particularly on the exhibitor side. The question remains what will drive attendees back. “While it will take time to get back to 2019 performance levels, we are on our way,” said CEIR CEO Cathy Breden.
“If COVID has shown us anything, it is that the need to get back to connecting one-to-one again is as strong, if not stronger, than it’s ever been,” Brian Cuthbert, group vice president of Diversified, told me earlier in the year—coming off a very successful event. “That doesn’t mean virtual is not or should not be a component of what you do, because it can get you new attendees and exhibitors who might not want do an in-person event. But large events are back running, and you get a lot of the same feedback from people who are running the show: ‘It felt great to be back on site; it felt so good to be able to do that.’”
This week, the Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR) reported that the U.S. B2B exhibitions industry improved significantly in the first quarter of 2022 from the previous eight quarters—especially in terms of cancellation rates. For physical in-person events, the cancellation rate dropped to 9.2% in Q1 2022—still significant, mind you but compared to 91.3% in the first quarter of 2021 and 66.2% in the second quarter, it represents a world of difference.
“You tell people what the event is going to be; you tell them what the safety measures are,” Cuthbert said. “Are you delivering value? It’s the same measure that we’ve always been judged on—did the event deliver value to you as an attendee or you as an exhibitor? ‘And did I learn something from the content [and the people] that I made connections with.’”
The CEIR Total Index—a measure of overall exhibition performance—remains below 2019 levels. Among cancelled events in Q1 2022, 50% instead offered digital events, down from 78.5% in Q4 2021. It’s clear that the appetite for virtual—at least in place of an in-person event—is waning.
“We realized very quickly that translating live events to digital events is not a one-to-one translation,” Haley Berling, senior manager, digital programs and events, GovExec, told us last week. “It is actually a completely different language you start to speak… We had to say, ‘What do people want? They’re lonely, they want to connect with each other, they want to access content. They want something different.”
“[By] thinking, ‘How do I take the show that we were running and allow people to access it on their tablet and let them try?’ you’re forcing it,” Cuthbert said. “We are looking at all the shows individually—so in some markets we’re beefing up and certainly continuing to invest in the content that we’re producing, the types of demand generation offerings that we have for our exhibitors and sponsors.”
It will still take some time for in-person events to return to what they were. Among completed events, only 15.3% have surpassed their pre-pandemic levels of the CEIR Total Index. Real revenues have suffered a little more than the number of attendees, 34.2% to 32.9%. Exhibitors have tumbled 30.1%..
“B2B exhibitions offer opportunities for buyers to find alternative reasonable-price supplies under the current elevated inflation environment and persistence of global supply chain challenges,” said CEIR economist Allen Shaw. “The B2B exhibition cancellation rate should decline further, and the performance of completed events will continue to improve.”
“You have to address head on what the safety protocols are going to be because it’s not in anyone’s best interest that you come to an event and then you’re surprised by what those protocols are,” Cuthbert said. “It can lead to conflict and confrontation on site, and that means a bad customer experience. We would much rather you come because not only you feel that the content is valuable, but that you’re also comfortable and accept what the process we have in place is to keep everyone safe—and if you don’t agree to it, we completely understand that.
“Transparency is your friend right now. Be as transparent as you can. And let people make the decisions that are right for them.”
For the record, Broadway theaters just announced that required masking will continue through at least June 30. For our own upcoming event—AMPLIFY, June 22-23 in Washington, D.C.—a clear policy has been firmly in place since April 1 of full proof of vaccinations and masking requirement.
“We want people to consume the content in the way that’s most comfortable for them,” Cuthbert said. “You want to come to an in-person event, you want to go listen to something on-demand, you want to engage with people online in networking chats. I’ll give you all of those options, but I don’t think it just exists tied to a single show anymore. It’s really around how you build it out over the course of a year.
“If you just existed on a single show, were you really as relevant as you think you are? Or were you taking your audience for granted in some way that you weren’t thinking about—their information needs over the course of a 12-month period?… And you weren’t thinking about ways to monetize those opportunities. A lot of what’s happened [has] just reinforced good behaviors of how we build and develop and support the audiences that we serve.”