Cathy Breden, CEO of CEIR and executive VP/COO of IAEE

Will Exhibitors Come Back to Association Events?

One high-placed industry expert says that associations have work to do to return their trade shows to the prominence they had with marketers before Covid struck.

Exhibition business won’t get back to 2019 levels until the end of 2024, says Cathy Breden, CMP-F, CAE, CEM, chief executive officer for the Center for Exhibition Industry Research. But it’s also quite possible that a 2023 recession could push back the recovery of exhibitions even further, she notes.

Breden, who is also the executive vice president and chief operating officer of the International Association of Exhibitions and Events, presented CEIR’s research data at the recent annual meeting of the American Society of Association Executives. And after that breakout session, MeetingsNet caught up to her for insight on what has to happen for exhibitions to return to their former prominence.

MeetingsNet: What were the measurements CEIR used to conclude that recovery of the exhibitions market is still a ways off?
Cathy Breden: It is a weighted measure of the CEIR Total Index, which includes the total number of exhibiting companies, total number of attendees, net square feet of exhibit space sold, and revenue generated from shows. Granted, end of 2024 is a long way off, but it’s still much shorter than the nearly 10-year recovery from the Great Recession.

MeetingsNet: Many association trade shows have seen only 50 to 70 percent of their exhibit space occupied in 2022 versus before the pandemic. What are those former exhibitors (or exhibitors who now take less booth space) doing rather than using trade shows to get leads?
Breden: Historically, when there is an event such as a recession, CEIR has seen a drop in exhibitors and attendees across industries. This time, however, it’s been different—we had a pandemic followed by economic uncertainty. During the time that Covid shut down the industry, exhibitors had to actively find ways to connect with their customers. The CEIR Omnichannel study revealed where the role of exhibitions has been reduced: in marketing objectives, sales objectives, and in the stages of the purchasing process.

Further, at the recent CEIR Predict conference, we heard from a few corporate marketers who are deploying their own conferences to reach current and prospective customers. CEIR research also shows there are many exhibitors holding their own B2B events. They are analyzing much more closely the risk/reward of participating in exhibitions.

MeetingsNet: Do you think exhibitors need to hear a different message from associations, or do they need different types of opportunities and offerings from associations, to be persuaded to come back to trade shows?
Breden: Exhibition organizers need to be listening to their exhibitors’ needs and understand their specific objectives for exhibiting. Then, focus on strategic bundling of exposure opportunities; communicate what is new and innovative for both exhibitors and attendees; and deliver the audience the exhibitors want to see.

CEIR is launching a survey in late October to gather insights to help identify how to maximize participation of exhibitors. Reports will be published in 2023, along with case studies.

MeetingsNet: How can an association benchmark its show’s performance versus other marketing opportunities that are available in the industry they represent?
Breden: Organizers should use the CEIR Event Performance Analyzer tool to benchmark their events against others in their sector, as well as the exhibition industry overall. But if your overall industry sector is coming back faster than your exhibition is, you have a clear signal.

MeetingsNet: Do you see the consolidation of shows or the co-location of shows becoming more common in the near future?
Breden: This is a possibility. As we have seen in the past, when there is an economic downturn, some shows will co-locate or merge. Co-locating makes sense when two shows are in ancillary sectors but not direct competitors. For example, a poultry show and a meat show.

MeetingsNet: Is there any other advice or insight you have for association staff who handle conventions and trade shows?
Breden: The good news is that the decline in exhibition attendance was just 22 percent in Q2 2022 versus Q2 2019, after being at 33 percent in Q1 2022 versus Q1 2019. So we are moving in the right direction, and we know that if organizers can deliver the audience the exhibitors want to see, exhibitors will come back.

Nonetheless, I am concerned that even after Covid and economic turbulence, I do not see many organizers doing things much differently than what they were doing before Covid. Here are some suggestions: treat your exhibitors as partners; explore the pricing strategy; be innovative in some way with every show you run, and consider how you can bring attendees and suppliers together in unique ways.

We have all gone through an experience that was traumatic and we must change in significant ways as we move forward. At the CEIR Predict Conference, the CEO of a big independent organizer explained that they are bullish on exhibitions and are being aggressive with investing in their portfolio of shows. I trust this person’s perspective and am encouraged about the future of B2B exhibitions.

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