Jason McGraw, a Group Vice President at Emerald, is a good guy and a friend within the industry. From his roles with such well-known shows as InfoComm, the Trade Show Executive Gold 100, and, more recently, CEDIA Expo, and KBIS, Jason has seen it all. I met with him recently at an industry event and, given that he had a story to top all of that, I took advantage of the opportunity to interview him.
Warwick Davies (WD): How has your company been doing in the past 20 months? What’s worked? What hasn’t?
Jason McGraw (JM): I can’t speak for Emerald as a whole; but for the events I manage, CEDIA Expo and KBIS, we have certainly experienced the highs and lows of producing events during the pandemic. In 2020, like so many other organizers, we had to cancel our in-person shows and pivot to online virtual events. In 2021, we continued with virtual events in the first half of the year and saw a return to in-person shows in the second half of the year. Virtual events seemed to take almost as much work as producing in-person shows, but with less revenue, exhibitor participation, and attendance. And frankly, virtual events did not provide an equal experience compared to live events. Virtual events served their purpose for the time of the pandemic when in-person events were not possible; but in my experience, attendees have grown wary of virtual events and crave the return of the face-to-face experiences that trade shows provide. Seeing and touching new products first-hand, meeting with exhibitors, colleagues, and peers in person is difficult or impossible to replicate online.
We held our CEDIA Expo 2021 show in-person last September in Indianapolis, but we were hit with a wave of exhibitor and attendee cancellations just as the Delta variant was peaking and yet we persevered and still put on a small show. The feedback from the exhibitors who participated was good all things considered. They valued the opportunity to connect in person with highly qualified attendees who made the effort to be at the show. They spent quality time and made meaningful connections.
And then we were faced with the Omicron variant last fall and we struggled again with exhibitor cancellations for our KBIS show. However, the demand to return to events was so great that we saw over 70,000 attendees turn out for KBIS 2022 and the NAHB’s International Builders’ Show (IBS) at our combined Design & Construction Week show in Orlando last month. What an amazing experience! In-person shows are back!
WD: You told me the decision to run KBIS this year was nail biting, especially how the attendance came in at the last minute. Could you describe how that went down?
JM: We had made the decision to proceed with doing this year’s event a year in advance following the cancellation of our ’21 show due to the pandemic. With the additional health and safety measures we put in place, we felt confident that we could safely operate a successful event this year. Our decision was boosted by the success we had with many other Emerald events held in the second half of ’21. However, with the rise of the Omicron variant cases through the fall of ’21 leading up to this February’s show, we did experience exhibitor cancellations and attendee registrations were pacing below where we had planned to be.
However, as we got closer to the event, the COVID cases had already peaked and were declining rapidly; registrations really increased in the last few weeks prior to the event and we actually had over 10,000 registrations come in over the final week including the show days. The demand to get back to the in-person show was incredible and exceeded expectations.
WD: What’s your opinion about not telling stakeholders the expected attendance on upcoming shows and how has that panned out during COVID?
JM: We actually were transparent with our exhibitors leading up to the show communicating how we were pacing in registrations as compared to our previous in-person events. We projected that we would be 33% down in attendance with 60,000 total in ‘22 vs. the 90,000 we had at DCW ‘20. As it turned out, we ended up with 70,000, off just 23%.
Another key factor in the show’s success after a long delay in having an in-person event is that we ended up with 48% first time attendees – that surprised us and our exhibitors. Many of the exhibitors who had withdrawn from this year’s show cited an expected lower ROI based on polling their dealers who said they weren’t going to the show; they did not account for the first time attendees that they hadn’t seen before. Many of the exhibitors who had cancelled have since rebooked for next year’s show and expressed regret that they pulled out of this year’s event.
I’d also like to add that our post show survey results showed that exhibitors had an amazing experience at KBIS ’22 with our exhibitor net promoter score significantly increasing vs. our previous pre-pandemic in-person event.
Even with fewer attendees vs. our ’20 show, satisfaction with the ’22 show increased. It goes to show, that focusing on producing a quality event delivers value for your event’s stakeholders.
WD: How have your strategies changed in marketing face-to-face events?
JM: We have increased our digital marketing efforts as most attendees and exhibitor personnel have been working from home during the pandemic. We’ve increased our use of targeted emails, videos, and webinars to engage our audiences as well as partnerships with industry associations and trade publication partners with online content, e-newsletters, and sponsored new product e-blasts.
WD: What’s been your success with digital, other revenue models?
JM: We have seen an increase in exhibitor spending in digital advertising, online sponsored content, and webinar opportunities. To enhance the value of the show experience, we have launched AI-powered online matchmaking platforms to facilitate attendee to attendee and attendee to exhibitor connections at the events. These matchmaking platforms allow users and exhibitors to make “smart matches” to help them connect with other show participants they wish to meet and network with. The platforms also provide exhibitors with an added marketing vehicle to promote their new products and show promotions. We look forward to increasing audience adoption and exhibitor investment in these platforms moving forward.
WD: What is your view on launching new events in this environment?
JM: As confidence returns with increasing participation in live events, I’m confident that there will be opportunities for targeted event launches throughout the events industry in various markets. Do the homework and look for underserved markets, regional opportunities, and curated content events for vertical market segments.
WD: Has your view on innovation changed?
JM: Communications technology tools and services certainly helped to keep businesses and markets moving during the pandemic. Can you imagine the past two years without Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Slack, Webex, etc.? Event technologies and virtual event platforms exploded to meet the online demand to fill the void of in-person events during the pandemic. These tools will remain essential to how we do business post-pandemic in hybrid work environments. Event technology solutions will continue to enhance the in-person show experience and help extend events’ reach with 365 digital extensions. AI-driven solutions, online service platforms, and self-service solutions will continue to facilitate in-person event innovation and increased ROI and value for all event stakeholders.
WD: What would your advice be to the rest of the industry be?
JM: Be flexible and adapt your plans as necessary to provide the best show experiences. Involve your event’s stakeholders and proceed with policies that serve the majority of your attendees and exhibitors. Stand by your convictions and do what you believe to be in the best interests of your events. DCW 2022 proved that it’s time to get back to business with live events. Put in the work, promote the power and value of returning to face-to-face shows – attendees and exhibitors will return and have a great time!
Great stuff. I’m glad to see you and Emerald returning with some industry-leading events.