Q&A with Candy Adams, aka The Booth Mom®
Are B2B tradeshows coming back in 2021? The answer is “sort of.” We are already seeing some shows returning, but in different forms. For example, well-known shows such as CES and SXSW returned - but in virtual forms. Others are coming back as hybrid forms with some in-person and some virtual options to support exhibitors and visitors who can’t attend.
To get an insider’s opinion on what’s happening in the exhibit space, EMG reached out to Candy Adams, who is known in the B2B exhibit industry as The Booth Mom®.
For over 20 years, Adams has been helping exhibitors put their best foot forward with personal, customized exhibit project management services. She is not only passionate about making it come together flawlessly on the show floor, but because she lives and breathes this industry, she has some insights on what she thinks 2021 will hold for the B2B tradeshow industry.
EMG: With now 500 shows under your belt, you have definitely earned that title of Booth Mom. You’ve seen everything, and in 2020 you saw everything change overnight. How did 2020 change the B2B exhibit world?
Adams: Shows ground to a halt with governmental shutdowns of mass gatherings; convention facilities worldwide were turned into hospitals, morgues and homeless shelters. Show organizers postponed events and started to pivot to virtual and digital events, or if they were unable to move quickly enough, they cancelled the event for the 2020 calendar year.
I watched virtual event and production companies go into hyperdrive trying to keep up. The prices of virtual event management services easily doubled, and new “virtual event agencies” popped up on every corner with little to no experience.
With little time nor expertise, show managers focused on content, but not on social networking or options to promote the exhibitors’ product showcases. Exhibitors weren’t allowed to upload interactive exhibit properties and were constrained by platforms that offered no video or graphics.
This was both a disappointment and frustration to the exhibitors, who had pitiful technology options that generally just mirrored their own websites. In fact, two 2020 industry surveys reported that only about 10% of exhibitors believed they got any ROI from their participation in virtual exhibits.
EMG: How did technology and virtual events rise-up from these ashes?
Adams: Companies who were already doing production of online content prior to the COVID outbreak thrived and grew exponentially. They were booked months in advance. Because there was little consistency of platform offerings, show managers focused on content and the large sponsors who would pay for the data gleaned from attendee registration, pre-event surveys, during-event polling, session attendance records, keyword mining from chats and recordings of networking events.
Few shows offered exhibitors an experience to replicate a 3D exhibit with design, graphics, on-demand demonstrations, 1-on-1 meeting scheduling, staffed live audio and video chat. But hopefully that will change in 2021 now that technology has evolved, and they have more experience under their belt. It’s been said that virtual event technology advanced 10 years in the 10 months after COVID-19 hit.
EMG: What are you seeing in 2021 for B2B events? What are some of the opportunities you are seeing in terms of in-person and virtual?
Adams: Some companies are trying to run their live shows again. For example, Surf Expo was held in January in Orlando on a much smaller scale as a hybrid with a virtual component. But the majority of Q1 and Q2 shows are still postponed, cancelled or going virtual with no live element.
I’ve recently signed up two of my clients for Q4 shows, but with liberal cancellation policies if they should have to pull the plug due to COVID.
As I see it, we have many issues that will affect shows starting back up:
- When will convention centres and hotels that host smaller events be available again? Currently, the majority of publicly-owned convention centres and many hotels are still closed in many countries.
- When they are allowed to finally reopen, how much room will be required to hold a show to accommodate the social (a.k.a. spatial) distancing? Plus, you need to factor in the cost of the additional space, the new sanitation/disinfection rules, and the health/safety testing of all attendees/ employees/ staff/ labour.
- As it takes about a year to produce a live B2B trade show, when will convention centres be able to again rent space based on their local health and safety regulations and what will the time lag be to those shows? What about the pent-up demand? Which shows will permanently close? I’m already seeing a number of announcements of permanently cancelled shows or ones that are merging or collocating.
- Without liability waiver regulations in place, companies are leery of being sued if their employees become sick while traveling on business. I’m seeing numerous schools of thought on the legal liability and whether or not having attendees sign waivers carries any weight. But how do you prove exactly when and where a show attendee contracted COVID-19 based on the lag time between pre-travel testing and symptoms manifesting themselves? What about asymptomatic spreaders and those who have already contracted COVID-19 and are told they have immunity and won’t need vaccination?
EMG: Are there new rules or special guidelines that you are seeing in terms of the in-person events? Are these guidelines different in Europe than in the US?
Adams: You’ve hit the nail on the head when you ask about guidelines. Every country, province, state, city and even down to the local health department level has different regulations about reopening to mass gatherings, making it almost impossible to predict when and how they will allow shows of different types and sizes.
I’ve heard speculation that the largest global tech companies will be moving their currently scheduled summer of 2021 live events to 2022 and will continue with virtual ones for the rest of 2021. I also recently heard that the medical industry shows may reopen first based on their community being the first to be vaccinated. Truthfully right now it’s all conjecture and no one has the answers.
EMG: Any advice to give B2B marketers in planning their 2021 exhibits based on your learnings from 2021?
Adams: Make sure you understand the contract terms if signing up for live or hybrid space. And check out the notice and options for refunds or rollover payments you will receive if the event is cancelled, postponed or moves totally to hybrid.
Companies should also look into their long-term marketing plan for lead generation. If shows don’t start coming back until 2022, they will need to shift their budget and tactics into other methods to gather leads. This could range from increasing their content and social media efforts to creating their own targeted event or summit.
Some exhibitors are considering pivoting to outdoor events with mobile marketing (i.e. open-side trailers or huge mobile video screens similar to drive-in movies) to make high-tech/low-touch presentations to their target audiences in metropolitan areas.
The number one challenge that I’m seeing with companies is trying to pivot their program from old thinking of event management to more TV-like production. This involves high-end studio facilities, staging, AV equipment, production, tech staff, content moderation, trained speakers, moderation and recording – all with a real focus on data-gathering strategy and monetization. Their current team has never produced these kinds of events and the learning-curve is high.
This year is going to be an interesting year when it comes to events and pivoting marketing programs to engage with customers in new ways. At EMG, we are working with our clients to do just that – and help them understand what is needed in terms of content, production and strategy to help them shift their tactics seamlessly.
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