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Phil Soar: How seriously should we take reports?

by Phil Soar

In his latest column EN guest editor Phil Soar asks how seriously we should take downbeat reports from the US.

Skift, a US Site, recently published an analysis on the state of the US trade show business. Andrea Doyle is quoted as saying: “The floodgates have opened, and travel is back, but where have all the event attendees gone? A number of factors have grounded them and kept attendance well below pre-pandemic levels.”

Attendance levels are at around 65% says skift

Doyle argues that, while events are back, attendance is certainly not at 2019 levels. According to Skift Meetings Research, event attendance numbers are down to no more than 65% of 2019 numbers. It is not clear whether this is a median, or an average, nor how large the sample of shows was (all of those critical factors which the research does not seem to clarify).
According to Skift, several factors are at play, the biggest being that attendees are no longer in their former positions. Resignations and retirements have rendered large chunks of our databases irrelevant. It’s hard to drill into the stats, but the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that more than 50m Americans quit their job in 2021, and for many who have resigned, they have basically switched jobs. The working percentage of the US adult population has dropped from 61.2% in February 2020 to 59.8% in July 2022. That doesn’t sound a lot, but it is more than 4m people leaving the labour force.
This all adds up to a major problem for attendances. Not only have many email addresses changed, but in many cases, we must be sending out emails to addresses and attendees that simply no longer exist.

And let’s not discount travel problems

Cancelled flights and escalating airfares are a reality that have an impact on event attendance. In addition, with travel budgets not back to pre-pandemic levels, visitors are not making the trips they did before.

What CEIR is saying about 2022

According to an Omnichannel Marketing Series created by CEIR, attendance is not likely to rebound to 2019 levels this year. In May CEIR released their analysis of numbers for the first quarter, which they said showed attendance levels 37.9% below the equivalent numbers in 2019. I assume this was an average.
They quote MPI’s main event – World Education Congress — with a markedly smaller audience than in years past. Held in San Francisco, 1,700 attendees registered in person and 300 tuned in virtually, a dramatic drop in comparison to WEC 2019 in Toronto which 2,600 attended.
While in-person attendance seems to be coming back, the numbers tell us this recovery is more moderate than those anticipating a full recovery by now would like, while online attendance has largely disappeared (the rather good phrase they use is “checked out”). The last finding is, of course, particularly interesting as it appears to contradict the widely touted (though intellectually unsupported) view that on-line events of all kinds had made lasting inroads into live audiences and that this would definitely carry over into normal times
The massive ALA (American Library Association) event told a somewhat similar story. 13,990 total registrations with 8,023 attendees and 5,133 exhibitors contrasted against the last ALA conference in 2019, also in Washington DC with 21,460 total attendees, a 34.8% decrease. Following the digital debate, ALA says it had 834 digital-only registrants this year, and it is not clear whether they would have attended at all without a digital option. Nonetheless, 800 out of 14,000 in a highly competent web sector does not suggest that we are seeing the great digital breakthrough.

How relevant is this to the UK market? 

There is significance. 25% of UK adults are still unvaccinated (and one assumes they will stay that way). We seem to have entered into a period where travel has become far more complicated – strikes, buckled rail lines, traffic jams cutting Kent off, £150 to fill up the car – all making a journey less appealing. The UK adult employment rate dropped from 76.6% to 75.7% during the pandemic – still the highest in Europe.

So the evidence for people leaving the marketplace is more limited. But the US is different from the rest of the trade show world for one very obscure and well hidden reason – two weeks holiday. Because most employees at all levels in the US still only have two weeks paid leave (compared with five in the UK and six in continental Europe), the annual trade show has long been an opportunity to take an extra few days (with or without the family) in Las Vegas or Orlando or New York.

It is not because of their convenient locations that Vegas and Orlando are by far the most popular sites for exhibitions.
US commentators often abuse me for this particular insight, which is I think mainly a reflection of their ignorance of how trade shows in the rest of the world operate. (This ignorance of the rest of the world can be seen in many places – just try talking to a US bank if you don’t have a US registered mobile to which they can send a 4 digit code – the idea that their non-US customers might have a UK or French phone is completely absent). The two events quoted by CEIR above were in destination cities – San Francisco and Washington. And that is the pattern of US events. With travel still not back to normal and financial controllers for the moment being a little more reluctant to approve five day junkets to Vegas or San Diego for their staff, then it is inevitable that US attendances will take longer to return to whatever passes for normal than elsewhere.
So, in a nutshell, don’t read to much into these reports from the US, Unfortunately many commentators and financial players tend to pick up on US reporting and assume that what happens in Chicago is automatically happening everywhere else in the world.

Robert Weissman’s take on it all
I often include pieces by Robert Weissman – the most astute if occasionally acidic commentator on the US trade show business – in my weekly offerings. Here are some of his comments (far cuter than mine) on the “negative analyses” of the Skift report.
“The visitor situation, while certainly regrettable to those who’ve been negatively affected, was predictable, inevitable, preventable…and is already happening again, under virus guises and jargons.
“This current extinction of “virtual” is actually the third iteration, the Cretaceous if you will, and was preceded by the Triassic (@1998) and Jurassic (@2009). None of them were a walk in the park, by the way.
“I plan to publish a full review shortly, which will also preview and predict the next tradeshow-related “mass hysteria” which will ultimately create the next ‘mass hysterical.’ For all of you DIYers out there, simply substitute “metaverse tradeshow” for “virtual tradeshow.” That’s what you’ll be hearing about next.”

Weissman asks: Submit your favourite post which predicted the death of live 

Weissman asked for suggestions of posts which:

– predicted the dominance of virtual, and the death of live as we know it

– the most ridiculous or desperate straw-man analogy to justify the shift to virtual (horseless carriage-car, 80 million people watching super bowl on TV, vinyl to dvd, Amazon buying movie theaters…I ain’t making some of these up)

– the most absurd revisionist terminology (lipstick on a…) blended event, smart event, pivot to digital etc.

– most annoying “damning with faint praise” from pundits quick to point out that the first interaction of live shows are @ 35 % off their peak event. (They never seem to mention any virtual numbers; YES zero counts as a number). (Yes, Skift can produce numbers saying 35% down, but we all understand where we are and that doesn’t mean that is where we remain).

– favorite ‘unidentified third party observation’ “I spoke to a guy who went to a show and nobody paid attention to the conference…they just networked in the halls and food functions.”

– favorite “how tradeshows will never be the same” with a list of supposedly ‘new’ items that have been status quo for decades.

– favorite excuse for current virtual cutbacks. “They’re not downsizing, they’re “rightsizing!” Interesting note: I received the following email from a V. Putin: ”Sir: Please to be understanding that we are not invading Ukraine. Our glorious consultants are helping to right size the country.”

– favorite about-face (“listen, we never really said, we didn’t really mean it, in the factual sense”) from the ‘live is dead and gone’ pundits…extra credit for posts that also include instructions on how to run live shows.

– favorite “you gotta be joking”: My current favourite: The Community Leaders Institute, run by the group that runs The Virtual Events Institute, held their recent show without any virtual component.”

Conclusion?

Trade shows are taking time to come back – no-one ever argued that 2022 would be a replica of 2019, but for several companies their 2022 revenues will be materially higher than their 2019 figure. Visitors are slower than exhibitors, for reasons I think we understand (25% non-vaccinated, major travel problems – can people in Kent go anywhere?) But the US is not a template for the UK – it never has been – and the recovery there is likely to be slower.
But, as of today, so far so good.

 

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