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How major conventions like SXSW and CES are working around the extended pandemic timeline

October 10, 2020, 4:00 PM UTC

A little over nine months ago, some 182,000 people flew into Las Vegas for CES, the annual tech gathering where companies showcase their products for the year to come and beyond. Next January, the floors of the Las Vegas Convention Center—and hundreds of suites in hotels in and around the Strip—will be empty.

Many trade shows have thrown in the towel on 2020, but the event business is hoping for a resurgence in 2021. The question, which many organizations are still figuring out, is how.

“Too many events are just trying to replicate the trade show,” says Jean Foster, senior vice president of marketing and communications for the Consumer Trade Association, which hosts CES. “So many platforms have an avatar walking through a digital show floor, and we said that is not what we want to be. That is not what CES is.”

In April, the CTA began working on a digital plan for next year’s show, anticipating a hybrid event. In July, it became apparent there was no safe way to convene the industry, and it announced CES would be fully digital.

CES 2021 will largely consist of two core aspects: a robust conference aspect, with multiple sessions running simultaneously (as well as keynotes from industry leaders) and a showcase for exhibitors. That second component will be key to most showgoers, as CES is known for its cavernous show floor with everything from giant TV sets to smart vehicles to drones (and everything in between). Next year, though, the emphasis will be on more than just showing off new products.

“It’s much more about connections,” says Foster. “It’s about being able to pop into meetings or briefing sessions or one on ones or being able to run videos. Exhibitors will be able to use the platform to create the experience they want to deliver and engage with key audiences.”

Conventions are huge revenue generators for both the hosts and the cities that house them, making the drive to keep them relevant especially strong. In Orlando, a top town for conventions and trade shows, the average convention delegate generates an average economic impact of $2,229, according to the Orange County (Fla.) Convention Center Annual Report. Southern Nevada (including Vegas) saw an estimated 6.6 million people come to conventions last year, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitor’s Authority, generating a total economic output of $11.4 billion.

So, it shouldn’t be surprising that some states are slowly warming to the idea of small-scale trade shows. Nevada governor Steve Sisolak has ok’d conventions with up to 1,000 people, with the caveat that attendees must be separated into groups of no more than 250 in an area at one time.

Some casinos, such as MGM, are setting up rapid testing stations and touchless kiosks for guests, while Wynn Resorts plans to launch a lab in its convention center by Thanksgiving to conduct thousands of rapid COVID-19 tests per day.

“We are not planning on creating a full ‘Wynn bubble’ by testing everyone in every environment, but instead requiring a test for employees to work or guests to attend a show, convention, nightclub or other crowded space that exceeds the ‘mass gathering’ state-mandated limits,” said Matt Maddox, CEO of Wynn Resorts, in an op-ed detailing the plans earlier this month.

Online conventions and tradeshows will likely continue to be the most prevalent in 2021, though—certainly for the first half of the year. South by Southwest (SXSW) has already announced it will offer a digital experience in March, combining keynotes, conferences, film screenings, and music showcases. The organizing committee says it is “working with the City of Austin and public health authorities on plans for a 2021 physical event,” but has no details on that at present.

For the Great American Beer Festival, which regularly draws 60,000 people to Denver, organizers pivoted to a virtual event this year after their usual home was designated an auxiliary field hospital. Attendees can purchase a “passport” that they can use for discounts on merchandise, discounts, and free beers at some local breweries for the first half of October.

Ann Obenchain, marketing director at the Brewers Association, says it’s too early to know what next year will hold, but says she expects the passport to remain as part of a hybrid model of the show in years to come—but sales of that are just a pittance of the usual money the event typically generates.

“Revenue this year represents 3% of what we would get in a normal year,” she says. “It’s significantly down. We’re planning around those much lower numbers for 2021.”

The bigger question, of course, is whether the trade show business will ever fully recover. Wakefield Research says it believes COVID-19 “will hasten a multi-industry shift away from trade shows as a primary method of product marketing.”

A national economic crisis would certainly support that theory, as companies find equal returns on virtual marketing presentations, and business travelers and consumers are hampered by budget restraints. Organizers of big shows, though, say they believe people will come, if for no other reason than humans are social creatures. But, like so many other industries, some changes have to take place first.

“The event industry is evolving like every other industry, like we’re seeing with the health industry and telemedicine and schools and distance learning,” says Foster. “I don’t think we’ll get back to the 170,000 people in the first year, but I think we’ll get there.”