The Global Media Weekly for executives and entrepreneurs

Trade shows splutter into life

The recovery of the trade show market continues. But diverse factors including restrictions on travel, transport and public gathering, personal fears, and the economics of participating companies are holding back the performance of many resumed events, according to industry data provider Events Intelligence.

Analysis of 16 exhibitions held in the UK during this month (September) reveals some worryingly weak comparisons with the comparable events in 2019:

  • Total exhibitors 43% down: 6,918 v. 3,915. The average performance was -43% but the range was from -81% to +46%
  • An average of 60% of these exhibitor bookings were retained from the previous show, so 40% is ‘new’ money rather than rolled-over deposits
  • Some 75% of the exhibitors were from the UK, 8% from the US and 4% from Germany

Mark Parsons, of Events Intelligence – which conducted the research among events including those operated by RX, Hyve, Clarion, Diversified, and Future – further estimates that pre-pandemic exhibitors travelled an average of 918km to the exhibition venue (143km for UK domestic exhibitors, 3,070km for international) while current travel distances average 136km and 1,914km respectively.

Splitting this out, the European share of exhibitors at these UK shows has increased (more exhibitors are coming from closer countries) – more French and fewer Spanish than pre-pandemic. It seems at least possible that the threat of Brexit had been a downward pressure on exhibitors in 2019.

Parsons says: “The main reason that the distance calculation has shrunk so much is because companies aren’t travelling from the US to UK shows (their share is down from 23% to 7% of international exhibitors). China and India are also down but to a far lesser degree.”

These are early days in the recovery of the trade show market but this UK sample shows that – while audiences may have rebounded quickly, to an estimated 80% of pre-pandemic levels – exhibitors still have a long way to go.

The recovery will continue to be lumpy (and five of the 16 exhibitions researched were at least 65% of 2019 levels) there is some risk that resumed events whose exhibitors were 50% or more below 2019 (six of the 16) might take even longer to rebound – if they survive.

The health warning is that these stats relate to the number of exhibitors not to the volume of space they occupied and, of course, this is “just” 16 events in the UK during the month of September. But the pointers are there and the substantial rebound of visitors (providing they are not disappointed by the resumed events) may be prove to be more important than almost anything else to the eventual speed of recovery in 2021-2.

There are likely to be some spectacular exhibition winners and losers during the next 12-18 months as it becomes clear whether the industry’s return to ‘normal’ is to the financials of 2019 or some building-block years before. The erratic nature of the recovery by sector and geography can be expected to drive M&A for companies and individual events. That’s why private equity is getting excited.

Events Intelligence