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'It's Going to Take a While': Convention Business Insiders Reflect on Recovery

Associated Press

FILE - Convention-goers crowd into a hall at CES in January 2020.

The convention industry was one of the earliest to feel the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, with layoffs beginning in early March. Today, business is at a complete standstill. 


There is some good news, though. CES, the massive electronics trade show, recently announced it will return to Las Vegas in January of next year. And some smaller events are starting to make tentative bookings as early as August of this year. 

“Based on the running tally we have of trade shows that have canceled for this year or postponed to later this year, 70 percent of those 700 events that we’re tracking have canceled holding events this year," said Cathy Breden, CEO of the Center for Exhibition Industry Research.

Breden said conventions are being canceled or postponed for a number of reasons, including international travel bans and scheduling conflicts.

She said many organizers are turning to virtual and digital options for their clients.

“They are certainly adapting and trying to preserve as much as possible of that event so that they can hopefully hold it live next year,” she said.

Rhiannon Andersen is chief marketing officer and co-owner of Steelhead Productions. Her company creates exhibits for convention clients. She is predicting zero revenue through December of this year.

Despite those grim numbers, she is optimistic. The return of CES and other convention centers announcing plans to allow events is giving her a timeline to work with.

"Companies like Steelhead and the other suppliers in the trade show industry are leaning on those sorts of announcements to help with their planning,” she said.

Her company has pivoted to provide virtual and digital offerings for its clients.

“We feel pretty proud that coming out of this very difficult moment in time we will be a more evolved and progressive organization,” she said.

Andersen explained that before the virus outbreak, her company created 3D models of exhibits for clients, but now, they're using those same models to design interactive spaces where their clients can connect with audiences online.

Breden believes virtual and face-to-face events will bea permanent part of how business is done in the future.

“I think that the virtual hybrid is always going to be here. There is always going to be a digital component moving forward,” she said.

Putting on a trade show requires a lot of work. It takes a lot of work hours to turn an empty convention space into a fully functioning trade show for hundreds of businesses from around the world.

Teamsters Local 631 provides much of that labor,  said James Harmer, convention businesses agent for the union.

Harmer explained that between 3,000 and 6,000 union members work in the convention business in Las Vegas annually. They do everything from setting up carpet for the convention floor to rigging lights and audio equipment.

He said some union members have found other positions while the industry is in a standstill.

“However, a vast majority of the workforce is currently sitting on unemployment and really looking forward to positive information on when trade shows will pick back up here in Las Vegas,” he said.

Some union members have been given work in the vast warehouses that store all of the equipment and decorating elements used to put on a convention.

Most event organizers are looking towards fall for a fuller return to work, Harmer said.

“Conservatively, we are hoping for work coming back into the October period. We’ve heard some positive reaction from SEMA, an organization in the automotive industry, and we’re hoping that they’re able to continue on their plans for a hybrid event,” he said.

Breden agreed. She said the organizers she's spoken to are aiming for the fall and early winter.

“Many of them are trying to get them off the ground in the September to December time frame,” she said.

When trade shows do resume, there will be changes to how the exhibition floor is created. Harmer explained that creating the booths, stages and exhibits is usually done in a mad rush, which makes social distancing difficult.

In addition, the crews must work closely with international exhibitors and their crews. 

“Luckily, we’ve worked with ESCA [the Exhibition Services and Contractors Association] and other industry professional groups to create some best protocols so that when workers do come back to work the contractors, the exhibitors, the associations and the unions have a guideline, and all of us on the same page so that we can work together to kind of heal some of those pre-COVID-19 problems into post-COVID-19 solutions,” Harmer said.

Breden said the guidelines have been vetted by the Global Bio-Risk Advisory Council to make sure they are based in science.

“We feel quite comfortable that with all of these documents that have been created, that we’re all going to be working very closely together to make sure that the environment on the trade show floor and in the convention center is going to be just as safe as possible,” she said.

The guidelines are just guidelines, she added, because each show is different and the needs of each organizer and contractor will be worked out differently.

While some organizers are tentatively looking ahead to the fall of 2020 and winter of 2021, what most people in the industry are looking forward to is a vaccine. 

“[Based on] the surveys that we have seen and have conducted ourselves, what’s going to bring people back and feel safe about returning – it’s a vaccine,” Breden said.

Rhiannon Andersen, Chief Marketing Officer and Co-owner, Steelhead Productions;  Cathy Breden, CEO, Center for Exhibition Industry Research;  James Harmer, conventions business agent, Teamsters Local 631


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Desert Companion welcomed Heidi Kyser as staff writer in January 2014. In 2018, she was promoted to senior writer and producer, working for both DC and State of Nevada. She produced KNPR’s first podcast, the Edward R. Murrow Regional Award-winning Native Nevada, in 2020. The following year, she returned her focus full-time to Desert Companion, becoming Deputy Editor, which meant she was next in line to take over when longtime editor Andrew Kiraly left in July 2022.