Restarting the economy: why trade shows matter – and how to make them safe

By on 19/05/2020

As governments begin to look towards life after lockdown, they have two key priorities: managing the public health crisis, and getting economies up and running again. Events industry stalwart Douglas Emslie tells Mia Hunt that allowing trade shows to restart is key to restoring economic growth, and discusses the issues around protecting public health

In China, disrupted by COVID-19 a couple of months before the virus hit hard in Europe, life is returning to some semblance of normal. As part of that, large-scale trade shows have resumed. Meanwhile, the German government has just exempted exhibitions from the rules barring mass gatherings, opening the door to business-to-business (B2B) events.

Douglas Emslie, CEO, Tarsus Group

Douglas Emslie, CEO of international B2B media and events business Tarsus Group, believes that the UK and other countries should follow suit, and his argument is a simple one. “Trade shows are mission-critical in rebuilding the economy: they’re the number one platform for companies to sell and to source,” he says. “One of governments’ key aims should be to get trade exhibitions going again as soon as possible, to allow people to get back out, start buying and selling and get liquidity going in the market. They should be a key part of any economic recovery plan.”

The World Health Organization has, incorrectly in Emslie’s view, placed trade shows into the mass gathering bucket, prompting various industry bodies – including the UK-based Association of Event Organisers, the USA’s Society of Independent Show Organizers, and global exhibition industry association UFI – to lobby governments for re-categorisation.

Of course, those responsible for defining ‘mass gatherings’ and potentially relaxing current restrictions will need to consider the positive economic impact of such shows and the risk of spreading infection. But Emslie and his peers are confident that the risks can be effectively managed.
“Trade shows aren’t like a football game or a festival – they’re easier to control,” Emslie says. “We can control the total number of people that we let in and when; and because these events tend to run over a three- to four-day period, the traffic flow is more dynamic.”

Health and safety standards

The industry, he says, has worked hard to create guidelines outlining health, safety and security protocols, based on best practice from around the world and easily monitored. These cover maximum attendee numbers, depending on size of venue; hygiene and cleaning standards; contactless arrival and registration; social distancing measures; and using sensors to identify people with higher than average temperatures.

“We’re working together on common standards,” Emslie says, “and not just within the event industry, but throughout the supply chain – engaging with travel and hotel associations to ensure individuals coming to our events feel safe on a plane, in a taxi, in the hotel and in the exhibition hall.”

The aim, he says, is to go to the various regulatory bodies and say: “These are the standards we’ve come up with. Let’s have a proper dialogue”.

And he envisions that this dialogue would be an ongoing process. Assuming that regulatory authorities agree the procedures and monitoring systems, Emslie suspects there will be periods of review to make sure the safeguards in place are working properly. “What we’ll probably see is a series of measures that would be temporary and a series of measures that would be permanent,” he says. “I think it will be a bit like 9/11, in that getting on an aeroplane changed forever. As a result of the virus, going to a space where there are lots of people and how that’s managed will likely also change forever.”

Supply chain concerns

One of the dangers of continuing the bar on trade shows, Emslie warns, is that small and medium- sized events companies, which make up a large component of the industry, may go under – making it much harder for economy-boosting business events to resume once the dust settles. “A lot of SMEs are surviving on government schemes. Depending on policy going forward, if those schemes taper off, we could see a lot of companies in the industry in trouble. And it isn’t just the organisers: you’ve got supply chain companies like the stand builders and the caterers that are really struggling as well. I suspect the longer this goes on, a lot of those companies won’t make it back and that will give us a challenge because when we do restart, there won’t be enough specialists to execute the holding of these events.”

Highlighting the scale of the problem, a VisitBritain report – written in association with the Business Visits and Events Partnership (BVEP), and recently delivered to the UK’s Cabinet Office – estimated that the country’s events industry could be set to lose £58bn (US$71.2bn) this year alone.

Emslie adds: “One of the dangers for the UK government is that we are now seeing China opening up: we’re already seeing events taking place there, and I think that will gain momentum over the next few months. We’re going to be seeing Germany opening up, probably over the summer, and I think we’ll start to see events happening in America in late summer. The big challenge for the UK is if events are running elsewhere and not here, companies will vote with their feet and go to markets that are open. And if Britain is wanting to position itself as the place to do business, it’s got to be open. The sooner we can get out there and promote trade, the better it will be when we start to rebuild outside of the EU.”

In the short term, Emslie hopes that governments “will understand that trade shows are critical to rebuilding the economy and are totally different from other mass gatherings”. He believes that the UK could begin to host exhibitions again from September, giving the industry “ample time to make sure that the various regulatory bodies are happy with the standards and risk assessments put in place. It gives us hope to get the economy restarted this year”.

Balancing trade shows’ economic impact with the potential risk of spreading COVID-19 will be a tough call for policy and industry professionals. But as Emslie argues, the business events industry is ready and willing to ensure exhibitors and attendees are kept safe – enabling them to resume the work of building connections, sharing knowledge, doing deals and, ultimately, restarting the UK’s economy.

For further information please contact Yen Tang, Executive Assistant, Tarsus Group Limited: [email protected].

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2 Comments

  1. Randy Giusto

    21/05/2020 at

    there’s nothing safe about the photo at the top. The attitude and ignorance here is astounding. The trade show industry was already losing its growth engine as younger generations coming up have very different needs and interact with content in very different ways, and just don’t see the need to go to conferences like older workers do. There is no snap back to 2019 by the Trade Show Industry. It will take years to recover, if it ever does. It needs to reinvent itself. And lobbying to say that trade shows aren’t mass gatherings is just ridiculous. Some companies with sizable event holdings are already starting to reinvent their events businesses by going community first, content second, and then the event (digital or physical) is just a channel to market.

    • Douglas Emslie

      24/05/2020 at

      Attitude, ignorance and ridiculous are all strong and unnecessary words. The mass gathering argument has already been agreed by the German government. Your comments show why you are a commentator not an operator.

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