Ten Questions About the Future of Face-to-Face

Following his appearance on EXHIBITOR’s Insight webinar, Scott Lebwohl, executive vice president of SMT Expo, answered a number of additional audience-submitted questions. Here, then, are answers and insights to help organizations plan for the “new normal” as live trade shows and events begin reappearing throughout 2021.

1. What safety measures can exhibitors put in place to keep their booth spaces safe?
Aside from the standard measures (such as face masking, social distancing, and frequent hand washing), you are responsible for wiping down contact surfaces, so pack spray-on disinfectant and paper towels. Consult with your exhibit house about permissible disinfectants that will not streak printed graphics or mar your exhibit’s finishes. Reduce the number and type of giveaways and only dispense them individually by hand. Eschew any serve-yourself items (especially food and drink).
For example, if you request that guests complete paperwork, provide pens from a dispenser labelled “Clean” and provide a depository labelled “Used.” Wipe all used pens with cleanser before placing them back in the “Clean” dispenser.

The guideline suggested by the Exhibition Services and Contractors Association (ESCA) is to divide gross booth square footage by 28.3 (a 6-foot distance equates to a circle of 28.3 square feet) to meet the standard social-distancing guideline. For example, a 10-by-10-foot booth is 100 square feet. Divide that by 28.3, and the result is that only 3.5 persons can be in a 10-by-10-foot booth at the same time. This means with two staffers present, you can only accommodate one attendee at a time. This may be the most troublesome issue of all to manage. At this time, it is uncertain how show management will respond to this severe occupancy recommendation.

Designing obvious and purposeful entrances and exits that facilitate a one-way traffic pattern – as well as isolating occupants in your booth from guests and staffers in adjoining booths – will also reduce disease transmission.

Our colleagues at the International Association of Exhibitions and Events (IAEE) also recommend scheduling exhibit staff in shifts to ensure no more than two staffers per 100 square feet of booth space at any given time, and scheduling in-booth meetings with no more than one customer at a time.

2. What cleaning protocols should be used for enclosed spaces such as meeting and conference rooms?
These spaces are addressed by the International Venue Management Association (IAVM). In its IAVM Recovery Guide, the association suggests that conference rooms be disinfected before and after each use. Leave disinfectant wipes or spray in each conference room to facilitate this and encourage employees to wipe down all surfaces and equipment (e.g., keyboards, computer mice, phones, etc.) that may have been handled during the meeting.
Additionally, IAVM recommends limiting in-person meetings based on locally established capacities, utilizing virtual teleconferencing when feasible. Lastly, the association suggests that lingering and socializing before and after meetings should be discouraged.

3. Can you discuss prospective safety protocols for installation and dismantle?
The following recommendations for installation and dismantle are addressed in the Exhibition Services and Contractors Association (ESCA) Health and Safety Guidelines. They are intended for service contractors:

  • When feasible, supply identification in advance.
  • If utilizing wristbands, there should be a designated station that follows all previously noted physical distancing guidelines.
  • Exhibitors and exhibitor appointed contractors (EACs) should go through the same process as employees for entrance, including screening procedures and temperature checks.
  • Evaluate all processes that bring people together. Automate as much as possible.
  • For exhibitors that have paid their invoices in advance, employ an electronic Bill of Lading that can be submitted electronically.
  • Utilize an electronic queue where exhibitors can go online and give notice that they have completed packing up. Two options can then be used: an electronic notification can be sent to exhibitors – or a customer service representative can go to the exhibitor’s booth when it is next in the queue.

4. Will COVID-19 change exhibitors costs to participate at shows?
It is often said that the exhibition industry is a mirror image of our economy, culture, and social institutions. As we discovered the need to ramp up security at all industry events as the result of tragic acts of terrorism and lone shooter experiences, we now must confront the significant changes that pandemic episodes present to us. COVID-19 is not the first, nor will it be the last, pandemic that nations must properly manage in the years ahead. This reality is highly likely to increase costs to all sectors of the economy that participate in exhibitions including federal, state, and local communities, host venues, show organizers, contractors, and exhibitors, to name just a few. The increases within the exhibition industry have been recognized as expenses that must be equitably shared by all who participate in these events. This said, the laws of free enterprise will likely continue to serve as a natural brake against egregious and unreasonable increases by any segment of the industry.

5. Do you anticipate booth spaces becoming larger to account for social distancing?
To accommodate proper social distancing, we must determine how to achieve more efficient use of gross exhibit hall space. The variable components include aisle spacing, booth size, food and beverage service, and miscellaneous floor usage such as theaters and meeting rooms. A logical place to begin discussion is the impact on exhibit space. Next might be limitations on seated food/beverage service, aisle space, and then all other space uses. For events of less than 250,000 net square feet, the solutions will be much less complex than for mega events that will be significantly challenged to find adequate floor space within the structure of one exhibition facility.
While there are limited opportunities to squeeze more occupancy capacity for 100- and 200-square-foot booths, larger exhibits are likely to be able to redesign their spaces to be more efficient, enabling more people to occupy the booth safely.

Of course, because most events remain mothballed, we don’t know yet what sorts of configurations and changes might take place. However, remember that all sectors of the industry have historically been very creative and innovative, allowing them to quickly adapt to change.

6. When do you think large, in-person trade shows will start again?
The Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR) recently released an economic analysis intended to address this question. The conclusion reached by CEIR’s economist, Allen Shaw, Ph.D., suggests that based upon current science and the state of the economy, the earliest resumption of significant face-to-face trade show activity is likely to be no earlier than the third or fourth quarter of 2021. Keep in mind that resuming live events also depends upon the neutralization of COVID-19 and the rebuilding of the industry’s infrastructure (such as rehiring and training new employees for exhibiting companies, show management, service contractors, and related industries such as transportation, housing, and entertainment). The recovery is likely to be diverse, challenging, and time consuming.

7. When it comes to shows with international attendees, what needs to be done for these shows to be successful?
Until the COVID-19 pandemic has been controlled across the globe, international travel will remain highly limited to mitigate reinfections. That said, keep in mind that in many nations, especially throughout Asia, in-bound passengers are subjected to temperature screening as they arrive. Those with elevated temperatures are generally not permitted to enter. Similar measures may become routine for all international travel as a preventative measure. In the meantime, a likely partial remedy may be offering international trade shows as hybrid events, allowing live attendance for domestic attendees and exhibitors and virtual participation for all others. It will likely be a slower process to achieve live event participation for all registrants. This is underscored by concerns about COVID-19 variants such as the UK and South African mutations. We still have much to learn about the characteristics of viral pandemics and how various vaccinations act to prevent infection.

8. What are you seeing as far as exhibit hall changes as live events begin again?
It would be speculation to suggest many specifics because we are still in the learning phase of how to deal with pandemic threats in the exhibition industry. But you can take many clues from how grocery stores and other retail establishments have already responded. For example, essential workers such as cashiers are separated from customers, one-way aisles promote social distancing, plexiglass dividers and contactless registration further reduce exposure. Also consider the opportunities that scheduled appointments between attendees and exhibitors could yield in terms of efficiency and disease prevention. As stated earlier, the exhibition industry has consistently proven itself to be resilient and innovative. There is no reason to think it will not rise to these pandemic-centric challenges.

9. Will general contractors take on a significant role in safety measures, or will organizers be expected to?
Responsibilities will be divided among general contractors, venues, show organizers, and exhibitors, likely in this order of descending responsibility. Contractors will bear the burden of ensuring the safety of installation, servicing, and dismantling while venues will be focused on modifications to infrastructure and maintenance of systems like HVAC, public restrooms, and building cleaning. Show organizers will focus of tasks such as registration, scheduling, management of daily activities, locating events in spaces that are appropriate to prevent spreading infections, etc. Exhibitors will be primarily responsible for securing their own booth spaces and adjoining aisle spaces and complying with social-distancing rules inside their spaces. Again, each venue is likely to develop unique protocols based upon the requirements of its physical plant.

10. What will the role of exhibitors be in keeping the environment safe? Will they need to provide PPE, cleaning solutions, etc.
Exhibitors will be required to ensure that they and their visitors comply with show rules regarding pandemic prevention. Current examples include face masks, social distancing, and frequent hand washing, as well as ensuring the safety of their own exhibits. As the severity of the pandemic recedes and as more people are vaccinated, it is likely that restrictions will be loosened or eliminated. However, exhibitors will probably remain responsible for keeping their exhibit spaces safe. It is also likely that contractors such as cleaning and maintenance companies will develop new optional services aimed at individual exhibiting companies as an extension of their current offerings.