Trade Shows Limp Back to Life After Lockdowns

Updated: Sep 16, 2020

By Wall Street Journal

This article was originally posted in The Wall Street Journal September 9, 2020. We are sharing because we believe trade shows will always be an important part of the sewn products industry.

Trade shows and exhibitions that were shut down by the pandemic are now cautiously relaunching in Europe in a dress rehearsal for what show organizers hope will be a broader resumption of fairs next year.

But judging by the shows that are beginning to take place, the pandemic has brought about lasting changes to a format that has hardly evolved over decades and organizers are rushing to adapt the shows to ensure their survival in a different form.

This year’s shows in Europe, often combining a limited physical event with an online component, are unlikely to be highly profitable. But organizers say they will serve to test what works and what doesn’t ahead of next year, when they expect some economic normalcy to return and some travel restrictions to be lifted, even as the coronavirus continues to loom.

“One thing is for certain; there will be hybrid trade shows in the future that will take place in the real world but will also be bolstered by digital media,” said Ernst Kick, chief executive of Spielwarenmesse eG, which organizes an annual toy fair in Nuremberg, Germany.

The stakes are high not just for organizers and participants, but for hotels and restaurants across Europe’s cities that have come to depend on fairs for a large share of their business.

In Germany, home to several large international fairs, restaurants and hotels have suffered a 56% decline in revenue since the lockdowns in March, according to the Dehoga restaurant and hotel industry association.

Germany’s Ifo economic research institute published a survey of German industry on Wednesday that provided evidence of the shift away from physical trade fairs. Nearly half of respondents to the survey said they would reduce their participation in such shows and 65% said they would invest instead in developing digital presentations.

In Berlin last week, IFA, the biggest consumer electronics shows outside the U.S., opened with a much smaller exhibition. Last year, around 2,300 exhibitors and 600,000 people attended the show across dozens of halls throughout Berlin’s sprawling ICC convention center. Participants included household names such as Sony Corp. and Robert Bosch GmbH.

The post-lockdown version was attended by 150 startups, many of which are little known. Among them, Meater, a maker of digital cooking thermometers that can be read via an app; Satisfyer, a German sex toy manufacturer that has developed an app to allow physically separated partners to have remote fun; and Little One, which makes smart baby bottles. Around 1,000 exhibitors took part in IFA’s online show.

Closed to the general public, the halls were blanketed in spooky silence interrupted every 30 minutes by a dystopian public-service announcement in German and English reminding attendees to keep their distance, wash their hands and wear their masks.

“This is not the IFA,” said Jens Heithecker, executive director of the Messe Berlin GmbH, which stages the show and other exhibitions. The scaled-back version would hit the company’s sales and earnings this year, he said, hoping for improvement in 2021.

Global revenues for trade fair and exhibition organizers fell by two-thirds in the first half of 2020, and 39% of the companies hosting shows made a loss, according to the UFI, the global association of the exhibition industry.

Mr. Heithecker also oversees other exhibitions such as an annual boat show, which takes place in November, and the Green Week, a food and agricultural fair in January that attracts hundreds of thousands of guests, which he has canceled for safety reasons.

“We have to scale down and test what will work,” he said. “There are no restrictions by the government for next year so far. We hope that we can restart the big shows in the first and second quarter.”

The trade show is a European invention going back to France’s weekslong Champagne fairs in the Middle Ages. The industrial revolution sharpened the focus on technology and fairs started to expand in the U.S., where some 10,000 typically take place each year.

Modern trade fairs have become deeply embedded in the way companies interact with customers and suppliers. When the pandemic forced the cancellation of this and next year’s Geneva Motor Show, organizers and car makers moved their presentations online, but industry leaders said they missed the rubbing of elbows.

“Digital works, of course, but the luxury business is still the business of human touch,” said Ola Källenius, chief executive of auto maker Daimler AG , which makes Mercedes-Benz cars. “Whenever we get past corona we will return to shows.”

The Women’s Fashion Week shows in Paris and Milan this month will take place, though some events will be digital and anyone attending in person will have to wear a face mask.

Alexandre Mattiussi, founder and creative director of AMI, the French designer, said his company would be part of the catwalk for the first time to make a statement: “In this period, more than ever, we are in need of human connection.”

China postponed Auto China, its big auto show, originally set to take place in April. It is now scheduled to begin Sept. 26 and will be the only major auto show this year. But few international auto makers are planning to attend because anyone traveling to China needs to quarantine for two weeks upon arrival.

The U.S. will be a trade show desert this and early next year. The annual Detroit Motor Show was canceled this year and expects to resume in 2021. Las Vegas’s massive CES consumer electronics show will be held online in January.

In Italy, the European country initially hardest hit by the virus, trade fairs are starting up again. The Cibus fair in Parma, dedicated to the food industry, had been scheduled for May, with organizers expecting to beat the 85,000 visitors recorded on its last installment in 2018.

Last week, a slimmed-down version of the event took place, with about 50 stands rather than the usual 3,000 and mostly national buyers present. The two-day event centered around a conference on how to relaunch Italy’s agricultural and food industries.

Masks were obligatory, a rule rigorously respected, as was social distancing, with people sitting in alternate seats in the conference hall. The only time distancing rules broke down was when Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio toured the stands with a crush of journalists following.

“You can see that people are desperate to network after being closed inside for so long,” said Antonio Cellie, chief executive of Fiere di Parma, which runs the city’s trade fair. “That bodes well for the future, but we have to be ultracareful because it would be a disaster for us and the whole Italian fair circuit if we became a hot spot for infections.”

Isolation rooms and nurses were available should anybody have shown coronavirus symptoms, but they weren’t needed.

One company with a stand at the Parma event was Monini, a large Italian olive oil producer that was presenting a new line.

“It was a thrill to be back at a fair after so long, but I have to admit it was also a little scary to be in a closed place with so many people even if they were socially distanced,” said Zefferino Monini, chairman and chief executive.

The two-day food fair was a dry run for a nine-day exhibit of campers and mobile homes scheduled to start Saturday in Parma. Mr. Cellie expects the 50,000 tickets—half the contingent in a normal year—to sell out before the start.

The company that owns the fair grounds covered its cost for the food fair through sponsorships and expects to break even on the camper fair with an association of producers helping to cover the costs of the safety protocols that will top €300,000 ($353,000).

At the fair, visitors will be registered and their movements tracked to help eventual contract tracing should anybody test positive for the virus. Organizers are watching the results of a similar camper fair in Düsseldorf, taking place until Sunday.