Where now for the trade show?

I was listening to an interesting podcast last week, speculating on the immediate future for the aviation industry. It didn’t come across as an optimistic listen for airline shareholders. (As an aside, I learned that it’s believed many older passenger aircraft currently parked up will never return to service, and that could include all but a few, newer Boeing 747s – truly the end of an era).

The podcast discussed the different sectors of air travel, and wondered if business travel might be particularly hit in the medium term, for a range of reasons. Businesses may not want in future to be seen to travel excessively; they may have had the efficiencies of remote conferencing demonstrated; and what if the ‘MICE’ (meetings, incentives, conferencing, exhibitions) industry collapsed?

This latter possibility is troubling, but not unfeasible. Conference and exhibition organising companies will limp on through the current economic situation in the same way as other businesses, and they’ll return with a surge of events, both postponed and new, inevitably with an unprecedented sales push.

But the health risks of a trade show are going to make it a hard sell. A sizeable proportion of potential exhibitors won’t want to force their staff to attend. Others will probably believe that even if they go, the visitors won’t turn up, for the same reasons, so they may decide not to risk what can be a sizeable investment. If the number of exhibitors is hit, the visitors will stay away anyway, regardless of their ongoing attitude towards social distancing.

The added risks of air travel will make it hardest of all for international events, but even local ones might find the hurdles too big to overcome. The conference and exhibition industry has proved surprisingly resilient in the twenty-first century, but it’s about to have its biggest challenge yet.