Rob Weissman has had a long and varied career since he started in the tradeshow business in the eighties. He’s produced shows for National Expositions, Blenheim, and Tribune Schwab Fox/Atwood New Media, consulted on dozens of major exhibitions, and run two of his own firms, Century Exposition Management, and, Alliance Media Strategies. He has produced shows in the US, Japan, and Mexico. Rob is well known for his outspoken views on all things tradeshow, so I wanted to get his take on what lessons the tradeshow industry has learned from the pandemic, and the future of our industry. I was thrilled that he took the time to chat with me.
Warwick Davies (WD): You had a long career in the trade show industry is there anything particular that stands out?
Rob Weissman (RW): It has to be the extraordinary strength and resiliency of the live tradeshow model; especially the main components: exhibition, conference, networking, special events, award programs…although the importance of those elements of this has been somewhat clarified due to the COVID experience. Tradeshows have weathered, and in fact withstood digital disruption far better than many other media and advertising vehicles. In fact, while not producing significant additional revenues, technology has made show production far more cost efficient, and thereby profitable. We both have computer tradeshow experience…I’m sure you remember the days of print/mailing a few million 4/C, 32-page attendee brochures. Hell, you probably remember 10$ long distance phone calls and badge typists. I’d be remiss if I did not mention the virtual tradeshow. While its absolute failure was predictable and avoidable (for more detail see:
It did serve one purpose, albeit unintended, by revealing the unique attributes of live shows that continue to make them viable, and impossible to replicate digitally in a financially sustainable model. While COVID hit every business segment dramatically, the pain in tradeshows, in addition to the interruption of the “live” model itself, was amplified by the fact that the industry itself had shown essentially uninterrupted growth over the last 30 + years. By the way: regrettably, but predictably, the “metaverse tradeshow” is now being touted by the usual suspects. The good news it won’t be as bad as the virtual tradeshow, the bad news, it will be worse…and for precisely the same reasons. The technology does not matter…the professional and personal motivations and agendas of participants in live shows are the key…as is my suggested use of the term “participants.” The perennial straw man arguments of conflating live and remote viewing of the Super Bowl…or World Cup for my millions of international fans…with potential remote viewing of tradeshows has been proven false because people don’t “view” tradeshows…they “participate” in tradeshows. In a sense, they are the “players.” They have a number they wear on their uniform; their statistics are listed in the program, etc. In fact, in addition to the product expo, attendees actually represent a ‘stealth’ parallel exhibition. They are displaying themselves to the industry at large. They attend for both personal and professional reasons.
WD: What grade would you give event organizers for surviving the pandemic?
RW: Incomplete. Actually, I’d probably give a B+. As mentioned, the industry as a whole had a period of clear sailing longer than most people’s current employment in the field. Consequently, staffing and projections were based on continued growth. Other than insurance and staff reduction, there were no options for loss mitigation, other than the virtual attempts. The industry was truly in uncharted territory.
I don’t want to dwell on virtual too much…nobody else did…but had they produced digital events without the bloatware and absurd pricing and expectations…basically to maintain brand awareness and some revenue, they probably could have achieved the same results. Clearly, they had to try something. For those new to the industry, virtual may have seemed logical; the unrelenting noise coming from pundits and suppliers strengthened that incorrect assumption. But for experienced organizers who experienced the virtual flame-out of a decade ago, perhaps scaled back attempts should have been appropriate. That’s the reason for the B+, as opposed to ‘A’.
Obviously, the reopening came none too soon, as the virtual model was unfeasible typically after one iteration (once virtual, twice shy). One positive that I’ve observed over the years is that exhibitors are quite forgiving of one mistake. EG: If you make a mistake on timing or location (or virtual tradeshow) and own up to it and rectify it, exhibitors will stay with you, for the most part. Organizers are not being blamed for trying virtual once. From both the inside and out, I’ve seen major shows disappear and truly it took several years of aggressive mis-management to ultimately destroy them. Again, properly managed established tradeshows are very resilient.
WD: What would you say they learned?
RW: Certainly, the value of insurance…as well having, or at least starting to think about, back-up plans for major disruptions. Additionally, the need to recognize that even without major disruptions, the fact that there could be more frequent cyclical ups and downs should be factored into internal planning, no matter how attractive “x %” growth predictions may be to analysts. This holds doubly true for associations and private firms relying on essentially one or two annual events. For multi-management firms, I think the risk-reward aspects of the past decade of global expansion have recently become highlighted. Clearly, China is the 800-pound panda in that equation. While the term “deglobalization” has become common, I’ve used the term “re-globalization” in the sense that relatively geo-politically stable markets (US, Western Europe) will be the main focus of new shows and M&A activity. In fact, despite somewhat lesser revenues, these shows could see their M&A valuation actually rise, based on the “stability” premium. I suspect the holy grail of possible acquisition, or at least JV activity, with US association shows has been (re) added to the radar of multi-management firms.
On a more granular level, the role and intrinsic value of the major components of tradeshows has been clarified. In the absence of live events, the individual main components of shows could be examined according to the scientific method of isolating and examining variables. One thing that became clear is that, absent the “whole” of the live show experience, the conference content has minimal intrinsic value. Simply put, in the overwhelming majority of cases, when offered digitally, people would not pay to view conference presentations, and in fact, not even view them free of charge in numbers that would produce significant ad revenue. This was actually proven years ago with the failure of BOB.TV, but the fact that this behavior was replicated when there was no live alternative really hammered home the fact. I believe show organizers are adjusting both the logistics and budgets of their conference programs as a result.
WD: What have event organizers done well over the last three years?
RW: Bottom line: Survived; and come back in a better position to meet upcoming challenges.
WD: What have they failed to do?
RW: I’ve been saying that the new normal will look quite similar to the old normal (and in fact already does); for better and for worse. The “better” is that ‘live’ is getting stronger with each show. The ‘worse’ is the return to attendee head-counting. Long before COVID there were voices saying “let’s get away from the numbers game and focus on quality, buying-power, or even more precisely “results”. However, rather than seizing the opportunity to change the focus, numbers still seem to dominate the conversation. To be fair, a large amount of the numbers-counting does come from suppliers with an alternate agenda; often damning extraordinary results for the first iteration of re-opened shows with faint praise by comparing the numbers to all time…and perhaps unsustainable under any circumstances…highs. That said, I submit that focusing on the number of different firms attending the show; and the purchasing power represented by these firms, are far more important metrics than head counting and that organizers should make that a universal talking-point.
Speaking of talking-points, the subject of sustainability, while far from new, has become ubiquitous…in fact, I believe there is currently a live event in Egypt addressing that issue. Regarding sustainability and show location, “One coast to coast flight in the U.S. produces at a minimum 1 metric ton of carbon dioxide. If all climate-change causing emissions are included, one flight from the United States to Asia or from Asia to Europe can produce as much as 5 metric tons of carbon equivalent emissions, which includes both carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses. To put that in perspective, 5 metric tons is the average amount of carbon dioxide produced by every human each year on the planet.” In the spirit of brevity. Purchasing carbon credits is akin to a weight-loss program of over-eating and then vomiting (I think there’s a medical term for that; and it’s not a long-term solution). I’m just spit-balling here to maintain the alimentary metaphor, but another alternative is not overeating in the first place.
Finally, one of the most astute observers of the industry, Phil Soar, has often commented on the lack of awareness and understanding of exhibitions by the general and financial press. This is due to the continuing lack of a tradeshow press writing ‘about’ the industry; instead of just ‘for’ the industry. The kind of coverage common in all other industries, from the Wall St. Journal to Variety…where organizations, management, and events are examined and critiqued in detail…including predictions and debates about the prospects for success of newly announced products and initiatives, independent analysis of performance, comparison of competing products etc. However, I’m not sure if this is a failure to create a real industry press, or a success in suppressing one.
WD: Many companies say that that many things are different post COVID and events have to change but secretly hope that things can be exactly as they were pre-COVID. What’s your view on this?
RW: I think it’s highly probable that their wishes will come true. Most changes will be evolutionary, and actually a continuation of items and features that began long before COVID.
Mega shows may shrink or disappear, but they will be replaced by other events with the same traditional format and features; perhaps based on geographical mandates, or industry-specific focus, for example. Anecdotally from watching my LinkedIn feed, I get the sense that overall participation figures may actually increase over the years, albeit spread over a larger number of events. To return to a previously stated theme, many of the “things must change comments” are coming from pundits and vendors who are attempting to sell something that theoretically “changes” current show formats. If you review the chatter from 5 or 10 years ago, you’ll actually see many of the same buzzwords; E.g.: more personalization…as opposed to less? When did “event technology start? The fax machine? The IBM Selectric…yes, I produced an Event Technology Expo in 2008.
If actions speak louder than words, show organizers clearly recognize now, more than ever, what makes a show truly work, and are spending their time doubling down on those traditional features. The key elements for tradeshow success remain unchanged. I suggest checking out the photos posted on LinkedIn from the recent slate of “events about events;” Eat, drink, and be merry…Cheers!
Please note: there is nothing wrong with the underlying rationales for why established tradeshow model work so well…other vehicles should in fact be envious of the longevity of what is essentially the same basic model since its inception; as well as the profit margins that result. When I say “tradeshows work” I typically add, “though not necessarily as advertised.” To that I would add that tradeshows, while very hard and intensive work, are not complicated. People love going to tradeshows. One main obstacle is that there is a limit to how many shows an average attendee can visit in one year. The goal is to get them to put your show on their schedule.
WD: One of the main weaknesses that events have is that they have little idea of who their attendees are beyond spreadsheets and analytics? What’s your view on this?
RW: Actually, I think that has to be judged on a case-by-case basis. While that may be true in some instances, I believe the majority of the “in the trenches” organizers/managers consider themselves, in word AND deed, to be part of the industry their show addresses, as opposed to being in the tradeshow industry. And that entails being knowledgeable about all aspects of the industry they serve. That said, it sometimes appears that their knowledge of the industries and people within it, is under-utilized or ignored, based on decisions made by people above them in the organization, who have a different background and focus.
Obviously, the potential attendee universe for a given show is far larger than the potential exhibitor universe, so, other than surveys, and visual examination of behavior at shows, intensive individual contact is not feasible. Show advisory boards provide some utility, but I’ve found that folks who want to participate on those boards don’t always represent the rank and file; plus, people are less forthcoming with real opinions when speaking in front of a group. One-on-one, “off the record” conversations with board members can be far more productive. And while Sun Tzu is often used for business strategy, in this case, I prefer Napoleon, who despite significant committees and spies, would dress up in commoner’s disguise and go to taverns to hear firsthand what was being said about him.
In my experience, some of the most pressing “disconnects” are actually between show organizers and the rank and file “exhibitor experience” at a show. I’ve had the experience of working a booth at a three-day event; it was quite enlightening. Do that on multiple occasions and you’ll get a quick understanding why exhibitors don’t follow up on certain leads. (BTW-are these the same exhibitors who are demanding more info re the attendees?). While staffing a booth may not be possible for everyone, simply standing on a loading dock during installation, as well as at the official contractor desk could be useful. Doing a mock exercise of interpreting and completing the forms in the exhibitor manual would also be helpful; or observing a focus group doing the same. A related disconnect is between various departments within show management firms. I’ve seen cases where advertising, marketing, and PR departments did not communicate with the sales department, or each other in more extreme cases. I suspect I would not shock anyone by saying sometimes these relationships are borderline adversarial. Actually, this syndrome is correlated with the many of the shows that I’ve seen disappear, as I mentioned above.
WD: What will events look like in 5 years?
RW: I’m going to substitute the term tradeshows for events…and say, not surprisingly, remarkably similar with respect to the previously mentioned foundational elements; barring any sudden change in the DNA of attendees and the reaction of the exhibitors to that DNA change.
Some potential changes:
While ‘attendees’ love visiting tradeshows; certainly, on the company time and the company dime, exhibitors, especially booth personnel, can be ambivalent. I think forward-looking exhibitors may participate in live shows in a quasi-virtual manner. Large screen video technology… 8-foot-high video wall panels… will allow booth personnel to show entire product lines on demand. And based on the comfort levels achieved with Zoom, etc., in addition to live booth personnel, the panels could be fully interactive so that company reps could participate remotely on an on-demand basis…I don’t mean just a zoom size interaction, but full-body, actual scale, audio/video interaction. The goal being that no attendee leaves a booth without personal contact. Obviously, this would allow any number of headquarter offices to monitor the booth activity, both in real time, and for post-show review. Larger firms could have remote bull-pens of reps ready to engage attendees during peak periods, while still being able to perform day to day tasks during lulls. CEOs would be able to engage with VIP’s…and private full scale video rooms would also be an option.
In a related point, astute show managers could eliminate tracking devices such as RFID, and simply mount video cameras around the show. One ceiling mounted fish-eye could probably handle total coverage of most halls with respect to traffic flow, and certainly provide more meaningful information than a heat map. Other cameras could be mounted in more specialized areas. Of course, in addition to operating as an on-site mission control center, this video could be sent to the home office(s) in real time, steamed live via YouTube, and recorded for post-show analysis; with modern zooming options allowing very granular observation.
In the big picture, based on cost and sustainability issues, we may see more regional events in a return to the model of a small number of sellers traveling to meet a large number of buyers.
And as far as seismic changes, there is always the possibility that exhibitors will realize how powerful they are in the current financial model of shows, and take their destiny into their own hands, so to speak. This could take the form of a Michael Dell- type disruptor to ‘open the books’ on show finances and operations and demonstrate that they could spend 50% less and actually have a product built to their exact specifications. In an alternate scenario, exhibitors could form a no-sense committee to produce shows on their own, or put management “out to bid.” Can you imagine if exhibitors, or groups of exhibitors, negotiated prices with organizers in the same fashion that organizers negotiated with contractors?
This scenario could be accelerated at some point, based on the experience gained by exhibitors continuing to produce their own, single-sponsored events; here again, the true costs and economics of show production could become apparent. If you further factor in the show being produced to simply break even, along with the elimination of 35 % of show production costs currently allocated to exhibit booth sales, as well as any commissions being added to drayage, etc., the efficiencies become apparent. In fact, I believe some events incorporate some aspects of this model; Pittcon comes to mind. While I give this scenario 0.01% of happening within five years, I will point out that a quick glance at the news indicates a new era of austerity in the spending in many business segments; all expenses are being examined. It should also be noted that exhibitions, for the most part, have never been subjected to show competition based on price. In fact, I can recall in the heyday of computer shows when pricing was based on raising exhibit space pricing as much as possible, as long as you were one dollar cheaper than Comdex…and Adelson was always generous in raising the bar. That said, if one major domino were to fall and the news was discussed in the financial press in the same manner as say cable-cutting, things could get very interesting.
All things considered, in the big picture the safest bet about the next five years is lather, rinse, repeat.
Wow, Rob, that’s a lot to think about. I appreciate you taking the time to look at the past and future. I look forward to this starting more of a robust conversation on where we all should be going and what we should be doing! Thanks again.