It may be quiet on the trade show front these days, but it is not expected to stay that way.
While meeting and event industry stakeholders wait patiently for business to get back on track, many believe trends happening pre-pandemic will continue a rapid growth trajectory in a post-COVID-19 world.
According to Charles Stark, president and CEO of Music City Center in Nashville, Tenn., trade show planners will continue to embrace a more digital footprint and new ways of engaging audiences, while attendees will seek opportunities to get the most bang for their buck.
“We are certainly seeing more learning and education sessions on the exhibit hall floor than there were 10 years ago. In addition, some associations have moved to a hosted buyer concept where they actually pay people to come to a show,” he said. “Where we are really seeing a continuous shift is in use of electronic signage and vendors using technology. We have added a few million dollars’ worth of electronics inside our building just for advertising signs, for example.”
Greater use of technology will continue to define the most prominent trends in trade shows, according to Blake Henry, general manager of the Kentucky International Convention Center (KICC), especially as facilities strive to meet the needs of events through the end of 2020 and into 2021.
“We are seeing event organizers incorporate more virtual elements in their planning, including hybrid programs involving live-streaming of their face-to-face events,” he noted. “They are relying more heavily on digital tools using audio-visual and IT to provide interaction including video-conferencing, virtual chat, digital presentations, and electronic networking tools.”
A ‘new normal’ for trade shows
In tandem with current trends, Henry suggests planners and attendees will continue to expect more stringent requirements around sanitary practices at venues—especially food and beverage— even as concerns regarding the pandemic subside.
“We expect this to continue into the future. Although social distancing as we now know it will evolve, we also expect some element of it to stay with us as attendees have become more conscious of enclosed, crowded spaces,” he explained. “KICC is fortunate in that we were fully renovated in 2018 with spacious, wide-open pre-function and event spaces, high quality air filtration and air flow systems, and state-of-the-art technology to be able to address these trends.”
Consumer confidence in safety will define how quickly events begin booking facilities again, Henry added.
“For this reason, KICC and our hospitality partners in Louisville are currently seeking STAR accreditation from the Global Biorisk Advisory Council (GBAC),” he said. “Deemed the gold standard for prepared facilities, GBAC is a division of ISSA, the worldwide cleaning industry association and offers the only outbreak prevention, response, and recovery accreditation. “
“At KICC, environmental impact was a top concern through our renovation, and we were proud to be awarded LEED Silver Certification for our renovation process as well as our ongoing operational strategies,” Henry said.
Stark noted Music City Center recently completed its GBAC STAR accreditation, verifying the implementation of best practices for facility operations during a pandemic.
“We are now probably one of a dozen convention centers that have already been awarded certification in the U.S.,” he said. “That is big. Now people looking to book with us can look to this source and know we are doing things the right way and using the right materials.”
The GBAC STAR accreditation complements Nashville’s ‘Good to Go’ initiative, a hospitality safety program recently introduced by the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corporation in cooperation with Vanderbilt Health, Ryman Hospitality Properties, and SERVPRO. The program aims to help businesses implement health and safety guidelines to protect visitors to the city—an important strategy component because GBAC accreditation only applies to what happens in Music City Center.
“If you are at a show here, I cannot follow you around and say ‘you should not go into that bar—it looks too crowded,” Stark said, noting restaurants, shop, and entertainment venues are marked out with signage demonstrating they are following city-wide safety guidelines. “So that is what ‘Good to Go’ was meant to do from the city’s standpoint.”
In addition to health and safety practices, Henry believes groups will be more selective about the events they will attend moving forward, limiting travel to the events that really matter to them and provide strong value and content.
Expanding digital footprints
Digitization was on the move before the coronavirus hit the U.S., and Stark says that groups will continue to embrace this trend. Along with heightened use of digital signage, he emphasized that video is becoming a dynamic way to increase value for sponsors.
“Instead of simply putting up a PowerPoint slide with a sponsor’s logo—where we started with technology— now they have movie video, they will have sponsors actually talking to attendees as they are walking down the exhibit hall concourse. It’s much more than a static image now,” Stark explained.
Technology is increasingly important at trade shows to improve the value proposition of attendees. In most cases, Stark pointed out that participants come to these events well prepared with pre-identified and scheduled meetings and events. “Everybody is pressed for time. Attendees don’t walk up and down every isle now and visit every booth,” he said. “People are much more focused on the booths and items that matter to them in that moment.”
For these reasons, many event planners are turning to scheduling tools and apps, and convention centers are helping streamline an attendee’s experience through wayfinding maps.
Technology and IT infrastructure will be critical to addressing and supporting hybrid events going forward, Henry said.
“This includes, but is not limited to, fiber optic, dedicated Internet lines, accessibility to hard wired connections throughout the facility, and audio-visual (AV) partners that can manage all these variables effectively,” he added. “For example, our in-house provider, Prestige AV and Creative Services, has developed its own platform for creating, producing, and delivering streaming content of our live events.”