By Rupert Darrington
The global exhibitions industry is facing its greatest ever challenge – how to persuade visitors, exhibitors and governments that it is now safe for people to travel and attend business events.
The UFI-sponsored ‘Global framework for reopening exhibitions and B2B trade events post the emergence from Covid-19’, and its ‘Good Practice Guidance - Addressing Covid-19 requirements for re-opening business events’, supported by all the major global organisers, is already making great headway in persuading governments and local authorities around the world to allow the reopening of venues.
At the time of writing, most of Europe, and parts of North America, Asia and Australasia, have given a cautious go-ahead to restarting trade exhibitions.
But an existential threat to tradeshows remains – the continuing fear of the coronavirus among huge swathes of the population, even in those countries where deaths from the virus are close to zero. In the UK for example, the death rate continues to fall, and is currently less than one per million per day, which is significantly less than the average daily death rate for seasonal flu every winter. Yet a recent survey showed that 88% of office workers said they are still not comfortable about commuting to work on public transport. There are similar levels of fear across most other developed countries. And, significantly, professional people appear to be more fearful of the virus than ‘blue collar’ workers. For ‘professional people’ read prospective exhibition visitors considering whether to attend an event.
UFI’s best practice standard for trade exhibitions includes creating more distance between booths and wider aisles, extra physical distancing between delegates at seminars and conference sessions, extra cleaning and sanitising of the venue, and limiting the number of visitors in the exhibition hall at any one time.
Clearly, the ‘new normal’ for Covid-secure exhibitions comes with a large price tag for organisers and venues, and therefore ultimately for exhibitors, too.
But with change – as always – also come opportunities.
An important, and obvious, part of UFI’s guidance, is that exhibitors should be encouraged (or told) not to hand out promotional materials such as brochures, leaflets and branded products from their stand. Moreover, even if they do, many visitors are unlikely to want to accept them.
Yet, it is a fact that branded physical products and printed communications are a hugely powerful weapon in the armoury of exhibitors seeking to maximise the return on their investment in live events.
So how can show organisers help their exhibitors to still get their brand – quite literally – into the hands of their customers securely and safely – not just at the show itself, but also for months and years into the future?
The answer lies in that most Covid-secure communications tool of all – a marketing medium that continues to see growing support by exhibitors – the organiser’s own printed exhibition guide.
Despite the common perception, average spend by exhibitors on advertising in printed show guides has been increasing over the least few years, not falling. As a specialist provider of event media for exhibition organisers – working for global organisers like Reed, Informa, dmg events, and Tarsus – my company tracks like-for-like average spend per exhibitor in a consistent, like-for-like way across a huge range of markets and multiple geographies.
And, surprisingly perhaps, the average increase in investment by exhibitors in show guides has actually accelerated in recent months, despite (or perhaps because of?) the massive economic fallout from lockdowns imposed around the world. Counter-intuitive, but true.
The ‘customer is always right’ as it is often said in the hospitality trade. The same also holds true in the exhibitions business. Exhibitors actively use printed show guides and other printed products (such as branded promotional merchandise) at face-to-face events, because these media help them to stand out from their competitors and cement new customer relationships that will propel the growth of their businesses for years into the future.
Exhibitors demonstrate their support for show guides in the most tangible way possible – with real hard cash.
That is why I believe it is so important for exhibition organisers to ensure their exhibitors have the best of all worlds by delivering to them the perfect trifecta of event marketing media – digital, face-to-face, and printed communications.
The printed show guide can be the perfect Covid-secure exhibitor marketing vehicle – printed on paper using anti-microbial coatings (shown to be a highly effective barrier to the spread of the coronavirus), packed into boxes several days in advance of the event to ensure there is no risk of transmission of the virus from the printing environment, and distributed to show visitors untouched by other human hands.
Even better, show guides nowadays can be produced in a way that is sustainable and environmentally friendly – using paper that is sourced sustainably managed forests, printed with natural vegetable inks, and in a way that leaves zero carbon footprint.
And the icing on the cake for the event organiser is that, if the show guide is managed well – and consistently promoted in an optimal way to exhibitors and visitors – it can be developed into a significant additional stream of net revenue.
A true win-win for exhibitors, visitors, and organisers.
Rupert Darrington is chairman of Publishing Events, a London-based specialist provider of media for international trade exhibitions.