The resilience of exhibitions and events cannot be under estimated. It wasn’t so long ago the sector’s long term existence was in question when the internet and various social media platforms were touted as cost effective replacements for all traditional media, and exhibitions were certainly singled out . There was one aspect at the core of exhibitions that seemed to be overlooked, humans crave face to face interaction and contact.
Over the last 18 months the new buzz is “Virtual” and there seem to be programs popping up left right and centre, all saying they can have an exhibition, set meetings in the showroom as well as conduct education sessions and you don’t need to leave your home or office.
My experience is the only ones who make money from these platforms and programs are the software companies; I think they potentially do more damage than help. Now before the software companies and those who have “re-invented” themselves to produce hybrid come out swinging, I ask you to back up how many successful transactions have taken place via these platforms, show us that measurement of success.
I get this trend was a reaction to COVID, however it will never replace face to face. I do believe however a hybrid version has a place as we recover over the next few years. If speakers can zoom in for a presentation that will open access to the world and even nationally (especially if Premier McGowan keeps WA closed).
The comparison of exhibitions and conferences to become virtual can be made with other types of media and marketing and I would sum it up as follows:
The business, interaction, education, networking, inspiration and importantly foot traffic at exhibitions is totally visible to everyone. Exhibitors have a front row seat where they can see the hall, how many people are in the hall, and what they are engaging in, whether it be conversations/buying, sitting in education sessions on the show floor etc. Its personal and real time where you can talk to the exhibitors, ask questions, seek more info etc. Everyone who attends is pretty well qualified as they have travelled specifically to attend the event, so the wastage is relatively low. With other traditional media, you really don’t know how many eyeballs see what you spend, there are stats for TV, radio, newspapers and magazines that only talk about total numbers, and they cannot advise where your specific audience was engaged. The closest to being able to do this is via some social media such as google but we are screen overloaded and the attention and strength as a result of COVID I believe will change.
Stats that seem to be better communicated from the UK and USA show the exhibitions that have returned have two themes in common. Exhibitor bookings are generally down anywhere from 15-30%, this makes perfect sense when you overlay who survived, who has enough staff, concerns over safety and importantly the global shortfall of stock the companies have access to. I believe Australia will follow a similar pattern as we emerge, and we are starting to receive questions already about operating procedures, insurance if someone gets COVID at event, stock shortages, and no cash flow. The second emerging stat is around attendance, which in some cases has increased as much as 50%. To balance this, some stats show an average of around 6% drop, which on balance shouldn’t raise alarms bells! It’s clear we have pent up demand to reconnect face to face and no media will ever replace the personal connection.
There have been many lessons learnt during the last 18 months, however two are stand outs and need to be addressed as a priority. Firstly our presence, awareness, worth and contribution to the economy both state and federal. Before COVID the closest anyone came to building government relations was Joyce DiMascio when she was at EEAA and the importance of her work was probably under estimated by the industry. Secondly, and equally important, are the industry statistic. The stats have always been held under wraps as all sectors of the industry hold them close to their chest. Being able to pull out specifics make it near impossible to find and or access.
What hasn’t changed is human nature and the fact we crave personal contact and face to face engagement where we can see, touch, smell, hear, taste and think about it. The post-COVID rebound will have its casualties, and some event sectors will be affected more than others, but the default human desire of personal contact will see us through and have an important place in the rebuilding of state and federal economies.