Unintended Consequences of the Empty Exhibitor Booth

An event organizer’s priority is everyone’s health and safety. The Delta and Omicron variants certainly raised concerns as they seemed to pop up overnight. The good news is that events, even large-scale trade shows, have been staging for well over a year now—successfully and safely.

Our good friends at Freeman and Epistemix commissioned a study last year and found that “risks of COVID-19 infection at events were as much as eight times less than the metro area where they were being held.” The study went further in stating, “In-person business event participants are more likely to be vaccinated, reflecting a vaccination rate above 80 percent and creating vaccination coverage that drastically cuts transmission of COVID-19 at those events, regardless of the gathering size.”

Data is on our side as event organizers, and if we aren’t sharing that with exhibitors and sponsors who want to leave the show, shame on us.

But Is There Still Risk?

Of course, but that risk to attendees existed well before COVID-19. How many of us have gotten the cold, flu or stomach bug after traveling to and from an event? As boosters and vaccinations have further increased and the Omicron variant has become far less problematic for vaccinated individuals, some European nations have moved to an epidemic phase and learned to treat it as we would the common flu.

As someone who has followed every protocol and been conservative in my approach to this pandemic, I have felt comfortable for nearly a year now traveling to events once I was vaccinated and subsequently boosted. I am certainly still cautious but feel safer at an event than at a local hardware store. It is also clear from my times at the airport, vacation destinations and big-box retailers, that people are comfortable in far less controlled circumstances than a trade show.

Safety or Savings?

So why are some exhibitors and sponsors asking to get a refund? First, we know it is not their desire to attend another virtual event based on Explori’s benchmarks that show exhibitor sentiment for virtual events at a -48 Net Promoter Score (NPS).

Is it safety or savings? Many companies have still extended their 2020 travel bans or restrictions despite the research. However, companies have seen dramatic savings in their budgets with sales and account management teams essentially grounded from visiting face to face with clients as they are replaced with Zoom calls. While there is certainly something to be said about being judicious about financial resources and a shift in mindset around remote working, face-to-face interaction still drives business. These budget reductions can easily be recognized and continuing can save companies big bucks.

What I found ironic and disappointing is that exhibitors who want to cancel their booth space or sponsor contracts are requesting to still attend and register. So, it’s safe enough to attend but not exhibit or sponsor?

Who Is the Empty Booth Hurting?

The organization, for one. Our research found that many association events are only generating 40% to 60% of their annual revenues. For some organizations, that number jumps to 80%. With virtual events, CEIR reported that organizations brought in a meager 50% of attendee fees compared to a physical event, and only 30% of gross revenue compared to the affiliated physical event.

With the end of the Paycheck Protection Program, organizations will need to have physical and hybrid events to make up the difference from nearly two years without fully in-person events bringing in the revenue. Exhibitors make up a large portion of that revenue, many times supplementing the education and costs for attendees. Associations will be less empowered and resourced to help advocate for the particular industries—much of what those same exhibitors and sponsors benefitted from during COVID and will continue to benefit from long after. Let’s not also forget the revenue that each attendee and exhibitor support throughout the entire events ecosystem, from rideshare drivers, cleaners, carpenters, etc. They also depend on that booth being filled.

Is Anybody Winning?

You bet. When I have spoken with exhibitors about empty spaces on the show floor, they say they love it when their competition doesn’t show up. They articulate to their prospects how committed they are to the organization and its members. It is a powerful message and image that is resonating with attendees. Some exhibitors have shared with me that they get questions from attendees who say, “They must be out of business if they are not at this event.”

Are we communicating to exhibitors and sponsors that they are not only hurting the association but also damaging their reputation by not being at the event? Are we sharing that attendees are making value judgments by not participating? Are we letting them know they are furthering their competition? Are they losing priority points and the ability to have a similar space at next year’s event? Having been in exhibit and sponsor sales for many years, I know this is no easy conversation.

So, What’s Next?

It’s time to have honest conversations with our exhibitor and sponsor companies. We need to educate them that their reputation is on the line by not participating. Attendees (their prospects and customers) will notice their absence. And more importantly, their competitors are maximizing their lack of participation and gaining an advantage.

As show organizers, we must also modify our policies to prevent outboarding and suitcasing at our events from exhibitors and sponsors who have canceled but still want to attend. It’s not fair for those who have committed resources to your organization and shown up.
And finally, we need to share the data that supports their safe participation, the importance to the association and their loss as a company by not participating. Show up for the association, prospects and clients who want to connect with them once again.