I get locked down, but I get up again

Getting laid off during a crisis doesn’t need to be the end of your career in exhibitions. For many, it is only the beginning


The exhibitions industry has, like all corners of the event world, suffered severe job losses during the Covid-19 pandemic. With income remaining limited for most organisers and suppliers, and with government assistance proving patchy and often unpredictable, many skilled professionals have either left or been forced out of their roles.

An exodus of exhibition industry talent is a very real possibility as 2021 rolls around – although, as tfconnects’ Trevor Foley says on page 47, there could be some upsides to this phenomenon as well. For those determined to stay in the events industry, new opportunities will open up. It may take three, perhaps six, months before we see it start to take place, but major organisers, suppliers and everyone in between are likely to experience a resurgence of demand later in 2021. This should lead to new jobs being created, and experienced professionals filling the vacated gaps.

EW spoke to several exhibition industry professionals who have left or been forced out of their previous roles because of the Covid-19 crisis. We heard about the new projects they have been keeping busy with, how they have cultivated good mental health during challenging times, and their hopes for the future.

Matt Coyne was group commercial director at the EMEA division of supplier GES, before taking voluntary redundancy when the company’s finances were stretched by the Covid crisis. Since leaving his position, Coyne has started a new podcast for the event industry called Waves Connects, where he chats to eventprofs about their areas of expertise, and how they have been handling the pandemic.

Many, though not all, of Coyne’s guests have also found themselves out of work, and so the topic of cultivating good mental health is a recurring one. “It’s really hard to ask for help,” says Coyne. “It’s difficult to tell people ‘I don’t know what to do’. But someone in your contacts has been through what you’ve been through. Staying close to your network is incredibly important.”

Diane Bjorklund is an event professional who worked for Trade Show Executive magazine, based in the US, for 12 years. Before the pandemic hit, she set up her own company - Eventful Management Group. Over the course of 2020 she has been trying to help those who are out of work in the industry with an international exhibitor representation programme.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of opportunities for new positions in roles like digital marketing going forwards,” she says. “I’ve been involved in this industry and have loved it for such a long time. The relationships are what really bring this industry together, and what people stay in it for.”

All of the people EW spoke to for this article reiterated how important LinkedIn has been for them. Having a large network of friends and colleagues who can keep you connected to the industry is an invaluable tool for those who find themselves out of work. And exhibitions, despite being a sector hit hard by the pandemic, has the benefit of being a tight-knit community.

Mark Gordon was an event director at Informa, where he managed shows including Sleep & Eat, kbb Birmingham and DesignJunction. Gordon was let go from his role at the end of December 2020, but since then has launched his own consultancy, Mayflower Events. He says he has found most of his work through recommendations and contacts on LinkedIn, as well as a group on networking app Guild called the Coronavirus Response for Exhibition Organisers.

“My first virtual event was back in 2011, believe it or not,” says Gordon. “So, after I left Informa, and saw that there was almost nothing in terms of new permanent roles, I realised I could use that knowledge and experience to set up on my own. The response has been brilliant. I hadn’t really pushed myself out there at first, but now I am. You’re my fifth call of the day,” he laughs.

As well as consulting on how to run virtual events, Gordon is keeping himself busy by taking a training course with the Virtual Events Institute. “I’m using this opportunity to stay ahead of the curve,” he says.

The benefits of keeping active by learning new skills are also espoused by Duncan Reid, formerly in charge of Clarion’s energy portfolio. Reid has just started a new role as senior vice-president for dmg events’ energy portfolio, after being let go from Clarion at the end of last year. “There’s a lot of people out there reskilling and retraining,” he says. “I’ve just finished a course from the University of Cambridge on ‘digital disruption’. If you’ve got some time on your hands, it’s important to learn some new skills.”


The long-term problems

Although the exhibition industry is facing a number of very immediate problems, both Reid and Coyne highlight another one which is coming further down the line: recruitment. With the pandemic painting the event industry as unstable and perhaps even dangerous, the existing problem of attracting talented young people to a career in exhibitions will only get worse.

“There will be two talent drains in our industry,” says Reid. “The first is the under 30s – we’ve always struggled to attract young talent to our industry even when business was booming. We’re going to miss a wave of people coming in at the bottom of the pyramid. The second drain is the small contractor community. Some of the smaller contractors have just gone out of business, and a lot of specialist skills are being lost.”

Coyne shared the same sentiment, and described it as “the biggest challenge” facing the exhibition industry. “Younger people have seen our industry get hit by an ash cloud. It seems like a very unattractive industry to get into in terms of job security. I think we have a responsibility to try and make it as attractive as possible. We’re not just trying to shout about the benefits of going to an exhibition, but also the benefits of working in exhibitions.”

However, he says there will be opportunities for those willing to learn new skills and adapt. “Organisers want to do things differently, I genuinely believe that. There is going to be opportunity for people.”

In the meantime, what does Coyne recommend for those facing unemployment? “Give yourself some sort of goal you can tick off every day as you get there,” he says. “Get fresh air if you can, get some exercise, get the blood pumping. Get away from your screens, and maybe even your children,” he laughs.