Just a year ago, a crowd of 5,000 people wandering an Orlando, Fla.-area exhibition hall would have been considered tiny in trade-show terms. This year, it was deemed a good start.
The occasion was a joint event held last month by three apparel-industry trade shows, Womenswear in Nevada, Magic Pop-Up and Offprice, which relocated to Orlando from their usual home in Las Vegas. In early 2020, those shows drew about 55,000 total attendees. But the goal of this year’s gathering, organizers say, was to figure out how conference-going can work in a pandemic.
Masks, temperature checks and Covid-19 tests were mandatory. Booths were spaced out, aisles had no carpets and floor markings reminding attendees to keep their distance were ubiquitous. Hand sanitizers were swag mainstays. “No hugs or handshakes this year,” an event website read.
The roughly $11 billion U.S. trade-show and exhibition industry is slowly coming back to life after a largely lost year due to coronavirus. A full recovery isn’t expected for about two years, industry executives say, and many questions now face organizers and the businesses that rely on lanyard-clad masses: How quickly can shows, which require months of planning, come back on the calendar? Are attendees ready to crowd into expo halls and hotel bars with strangers again? And, after a year of remote networking, do they feel they need to?
Some of the biggest shows are planning to resume in person, with options for tuning in virtually. Mobile World Congress, which hosted more than 109,000 attendees in Barcelona in 2019, will return with a hybrid option in June after scrapping the event in 2020. CES, the world’s largest tech show, went virtual this year and expects to return with a hybrid option in Las Vegas in January 2022.