Joao Martins

COVID-19 and Trade Shows: Don't Panic Until Instructed

March 5 2020, 18:10
In the past weeks I've been avoiding reading any text or commentary that starts with "I'm no health expert but..." So, in that same spirit the following section of this article should be interpreted as a sort of disclaimer.

By now everyone should be aware that we have a new deadly virus  quickly spreading across the globe. It is not the worst virus ever, it will soon become another bug that we will receive in our annual anti-flu vaccines like many others, but as it is killing the most debilitated, we should do everything in our reach to avoid spreading it.

Maintaining at least 1 meter (3 feet) distance between anyone who is coughing or sneezing, not shaking hands, and frequently washing our hands, does help avoid contagion. And it is better to avoid big crowd gatherings if we can. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), "As the COVID-19 outbreak evolves, CDC strongly encourages event organizers and staff to prepare for the possibility of outbreaks in their communities." So, do strictly what you have to do. Go to work. Go vote. Avoid traveling if you can.
While we wait for the cancellation announcements for forthcoming trade shows, we can only hope that staying home for a while will pay off and that very soon we can all get back to business as usual.
The good news is that China is getting the situation under control and reporting a lower number of cases every day. The bad news is that the virus is now spreading globally. So, this means there's no chance for any industry, anywhere in the globe, to promote "mass gatherings and large community events." This includes trade shows.

When I heard about the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona being cancelledbecause of concerns with the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, I was attending the Integrated Systems Europe (ISE) 2020 trade show in Amsterdam and it was clearly noticeable how uncomfortable the whole situation was for everyone (don't even think of coughing in public...). Still, at that time the situation was mainly restricted to Asia, and several companies, mostly from China, had cancelled their presence, but there was no sense of immediate danger. The risk was low.

Cancelling Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2020 was, on the other hand, an unavoidable and predictable decision, given the fact that MWC is traditionally a show dominated by large exhibitors from China, which had all been forced to cancel their presence due to the international traveling restrictions. More than 50% of the exhibition space would be empty, and attendance figures would probably be much lower had the show opened its doors anyway.
Hanshake alternatives.
Next up, the High End 2020 trade show, planned for May 14 to 17, 2020 in Munich, was also cancelled when the spread of the coronavirus to Europe was detected. Even with registrations for the annual Munich show once again exceeding expectations and the whole MOC exhibition center booked solid, under advice from the local authorities in Bavaria and under pressure from some exhibitors, the High End Society was forced to make the announcement. As the promoters stated, " organizers of an international trade show, we consider it our responsibility to act in a timely manner," and they added, "...we take our duty of care towards our exhibitors, visitors and employees very seriously."

Note that the Munich show was schedule to happen mid-May. Before that, many other trade shows and industry events are (were?) still scheduled to take place. Cancelling is not an easy decision for an event promoter (nor for the exhibitors), but I have no doubt that what the High End Society did in Munich is the only possible decision under the circumstances. Other trade show promoters have decided to wait a little longer to monitor the fast-evolving situation, and ignore the obvious conclusion that things are going to get worse before they get better.
A major trade show was cancelled? Reboot your marketing strategy. Livestream your press conference at the original scheduled time. Make sure all promotional materials are available online.
We learned on Tuesday that the Messe Frankfurt Exhibition announced the decision to "postpone" the Prolight+Sound and Musikmesse shows, instead of simply cancelling. Earlier, Frankfurt Messe had already announced that Light+Building Frankfurt 2020 - which was supposed to take place March 8-13 - was postponed to September 27 to October 2. Light+Building is a massive show and those same dates clash with the Consumer Electronics China (CE China), which the Frankfurt Messe probably assumed will be canceled anyway.

In the announcement about the reasons to "postpone" Prolight-Sound 2020, Messe Frankfurt mentions "the increasing spread of Covid-19 in Europe," and the requirement by the public health authorities in Frankfurt to "conduct a health check" of all visitors "to prevent the infection spreading even further," which of course the organization "is not able to implement." Travel restrictions making it difficult for many potential visitors and exhibitors to get to Frankfurt is the other factor mentioned. But it is assumed that all this will be old news when the show will take place May 26-29. Well, "I'm no health expert but..." the way things are evolving...

I'm not exactly an inexperienced traveler and I can tell you that when MWC Barcelona was cancelled I could not get any refunds from the airline, much less from the hotel I booked a long time ago. I can also confirm that - assuming no travel restrictions and the virus risk assessment allowing - from May 25-28 I would like to attend the 148th Audio Engineering Society International Pro Audio Convention in Vienna, Austria. And I already have flights and hotel booked for that event, happening the same week as the "postponed" Prolight+Sound...
Most of the companies exhibiting at these trade shows have already taken a hit from non-refundable expenses, not to mention the impact for business of not doing the scheduled product announcements and meeting with clients, agents, partners, suppliers, etc. I pretty much doubt that, under the current conditions, companies will simply decide to forget about the cost, reschedule all the booth logistics and personal travel arrangements for the new dates, knowing they will have no assurance whatsoever that the situation will be much different for the new dates and that most probably there will be almost no visitors at the rescheduled event. So, postponing trade shows is just a bad decision and one that does not bode well for a trade show organizer.
Postponing a show for this?
So, what would I recommend? "I'm no health expert but..." I would recommend simply following the relevant authorities' reports and wait. And until then use the available time to reorganize, focus on product development and other essential bench and back office activities, and get ready for a full-force return at a later date. And more important, for those companies that did have a product roll out in place and are now getting notices that their containers will soon be leaving the factories... well, time to get that press release out, engage with your PR people, reorganize sales, refresh your distribution strategy... in short, keep doing your job.

I'll just add this. Since I returned from ISE 2020 I've noticed that many of the announcements at that show didn't have a confirmed launch date for many of the products unveiled there. And that was a natural thing, because factories were mostly closed in China while we were in Amsterdam. And even if the company was from the UK and assembling takes place there, most of the essential parts and components come from China anyway, so...

What's strange is that I was expecting a lot of extra marcom and PR activity from all the companies that were supposed to announce new products at the MWC Barcelona. Not exactly from the smartphone makers, which have massive scale and production challenges, but from the technology and semiconductor companies, the component vendors, etc. MWC 2020 week is behind us and I didn't get the usual massive amount of press releases in our inbox. There were no "virtual press conferences" from those important companies. No extra calls. No "let's use the extra time in the office to make sure we get our message out."

If this is what you were going to do at a trade show, better stay home anyway...

And please, if anyone in your organization mentions "let's do a webinar," instead of the press event, just ignore them or promote that person to "vice-president in charge of grabbing coffee" for the next two months at least. Just think. In this day and age of OTT Netflix/Amazon Prime/Apple+ on-demand everything, why would we have to sit at 9:30 in the morning in front of the computer to see your webinar or a "Facebook Live" thing? #SaynotoWebinars

Yes, use Skype to communicate more with your own people working remotely, and your partners. Use YouTube videos to explain products and for tutorials - as long as you hire someone who knows about camera, lightning and sound, and you don't allow your CEO or VP of marketing to babble into the camera for 10 minutes. Make those videos available on-demand on your own website so everyone can see them when they need to and have time. Allow people who watch those videos to send questions and make sure someone responds.

From our side - and our ad sales team would not forgive me if I didn't mention this - we are ready to work with you on getting your message out. There's a discounted package for ad campaigns online, newsletter and print (Just email us and tell us how much you want to spend - no discount code needed). Publishing an article about your new product or technology announcement is free (email here). Just make sure you send a few photos as well since we didn't have the chance to take photos of your booth this year :)

Yes, we're all staying put for a while. But let's use the time to work and make sure we can go back to the next trade show - hopefully already in June - and we can all hug and greet one another without fear.

This article was published originally in The Audio Voice 268 newsletter, March 5, 2020.
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