BizBash – 2022 Forecast: What’s Next in Trade Shows and Conventions?

December 2, 2021

Top trade show producers share their biggest predictions and favorite trends for the year ahead.

CLAIRE HOFFMAN – DECEMBER 2, 2021

To get a clearer picture of what the future holds during a period of so much uncertainty, BizBash is planning a series of articles where top professionals from all aspects of the event industry share their predictions and insights for the year ahead.

Previously, we caught up with lighting and audiovisual producers and floral and event designers. Now, we’re chatting with the producers behind some of the world’s most high-profile trade shows and conventions. Here’s an in-depth look at what five experts around the country are expecting to see in 2022.

1. Trade shows and conventions will become more intentional and thoughtful.
Overall, the producers BizBash spoke with are optimistic about the future. “We expect 2022 to be a very strong year for the events industry,” says Marc Herron, senior vice president of strategy at event production company Sparks. “We will see continued trends in hyper-personalization, connected technologies, smart storytelling, integrated virtual/live formats, a focus on creators and authentic/meaningful content, sponsorship and partnership marketing and, lastly, sustainability and more conscious spending and materiality.”

“2021 has been a year of innovation and changes in the events industry,” says Bob Priest-Heck, CEO and board member at trade show, exhibit and event company Freeman, adding that in 2022, “the experience is going to continue to matter. We need to use a data-driven approach when it comes to knowing our audience, and design experiences that cater to them.”

He continues, “2022 is going to be about taking all of the things we’ve learned during the pandemic, like the acceleration of digital, and bringing it all together for can’t-miss experiences.”

 2. Attendees want to gather in person—but may need a bit more incentive.
“Our attendees are craving the live experience and being back together to do business face-to-face,” says Liz Irving, executive vice president and head of marketing, technology and customer experience for trade show management company Clarion Events Inc.“I think we’ll continue to see a focus on the quality of our attending audience, and more focus on ensuring our events create connections opportunities through defined meeting programs, networking and the serendipitous experiences.”

Just remember that attendees may be more discerning about what they want to attend right now, adds Irving. “Attendees care about how they spend their time and the value they receive when away from their business—and finding the right mix of professional and personal connection experiences is key.”

Brendan Brown, vice president of strategy for event production company George P. Johnson Experience Marketing, thinks that zeroing in on a trade show’s true purpose will help producers draw audiences. “The important thing to remember is the desire and need for face-to-face connection hasn’t changed. In fact, I’d argue the complexities and challenges all industries face these days demand it,” he says. “Trade shows, big and small, able to zero-in on the human why behind their events, will find their way to how. … For attendees and exhibitors, better reasons and higher purposes will be required to show up again IRL.”

Lance Fensterman—the president of ReedPop, a division of Reed Exhibitions that focuses on pop culture shows like New York Comic Con—says “I don’t think our fans and brands will ever take community for granted again. … Everyone is happy to bust through that screen and see real people again.” He predicts that creating “safe, convenient, high-quality events” with a healthy dose of FOMO-inducing moments will be the industry’s focus in 2022.

3. Smaller, more focused trade shows may become the norm.
Brown also thinks that many trade shows will return smaller and more focused than in previous years. “Specificity as a survival strategy has the upside potential of establishing deeper connections and communities, and the potential to deliver more relevant experiences without the waste,” he points out. “Downsized trade shows will come in many forms—some will turn toward creating more exclusive, tiered offerings, while others will take their shows on the road for increasingly distributed and localized versions and communities.”

4. Experimentation is key.
Like in every aspect of the event industry, now is the time for experimentation, say our experts. “The last 18 months have been a Cambrian explosion for events. Organizers, producers and experience designers have had to adapt to all sorts of new conditions and constraints,” says Brown. “As trade shows re-emerge, finding an ideal ‘fit’ within this new landscape will require continued experimentation across a range of dimensions. As always, empathy and creativity are essential factors, but trial and error will be what sets many apart in the long run. The playing field hasn’t just been leveled—it’s leveled up.”

Brown adds that while there may be fewer large-scale trade shows, “the big shows that make it will be highly experiential in nature, and will blur the lines between business and culture, professional and personal growth.”

Herron agrees that producers and show hosts need to reexamine and experiment. “2021 saw brands focus on their event portfolios strategically to ensure better and more efficient use of their budgets,” he says. “The way of doing legacy programs because brands have always done them is over. 2022 will see much more focused event programs with strategic programming and intention.”

For her part, Irving welcomes this era of innovation. “My biggest hope is that we continue to see the industry grow and evolve through innovation—both in terms of how we create our live experiences but also how technology can play a really pivotal role for our exhibitors, our attendees and us as organizers,” she says. “Personally, I have really loved seeing the industry come together, to share, learn and evolve—and I hope that comradery and the willingness to share continues.”

“The pandemic has made us all take a step back, look at ourselves as an industry and innovate at a pace we’ve never seen before,” says Priest-Heck.

5. Sustainability matters.
“Another key trend will be sustainability,” argues Priest-Heck. “People have increased their focus on environmental impacts and our own Freeman research shows that 62% of people say it’s now more important than before the pandemic that companies behave in a more sustainable and eco-friendly way.”

He adds that Freeman has joined more than 150 businesses from across the sector in the Net Zero Pledge; Priest-Heck recently presented on the topic at the Climate Change Conference. It’s about “committing to work together to minimize our carbon footprint now, and focus on the long-term to drive meaningful progress,” he explains.

6. COVID-19 will continue to be top of mind.
“COVID is not going away,” points out Herron. “We are learning to live with it. Mandatory vaccination and testing are keeping the event industry moving forward and opening up. Most brands, clients, agencies and show organizers realize the importance of complying with CDC guidelines and protecting attendees as best they can. This will continue for some time.”

Irving, though, does note that the impacts of COVID-19 are starting to slow. “I believe we will be moving further away from the focus being on ‘running a safe event’ to really be more about the importance for all communities to get back to live events,” she predicts for 2022. “I do believe COVID has taught us to be smarter, more dynamic organizers, and we now have more tools in our toolkit to put into play.”

Priest-Heck agrees. “I think we’re going to hear less and less about the ‘return to in-person events’ [in 2022] because we’re already here! The events industry came together and we’ve created safe environments through a data-driven approach,” he says. “Freeman partnered with Epistemix to significantly limit the risk of infection at events and even found that attending an in-person event is no riskier—less risky in most cases—than going to the grocery store, school or other essential daily activities.”

But, he adds, “The number-one safety factor for these events is that attendees and exhibitors are over 90% vaccinated.”

That’s not to say attendees don’t care about safety, of course. “We’ll continue to see adequate social distancing, offering online/touchless registration and digital badges, positioning sanitization stations and masks throughout in-person events, and even vaccination and/or negative-test only events,” predicts Priest-Heck.

7. Digital options will continue reaching new attendees.
Fensterman predicts that hybrid events are here to stay. “We will always include digital elements in everything we build. Many of our events have historically sold out—and never again will a ReedPop show sell out,” he says. “You may not be able to get in the building, but you will now always have an option for robust and meaningful digital participation.”

He adds, “Greater quantifiable ROI will be an expectation. … Customers have gotten used to the online world where everything is measurable, and the analog part of our business needs to catch up in that regard.”

Irving predicts a change in approach to digital events as trade show attendees return in person. “I do think what we will begin to reimagine is the role digital can play within the event ecosystem—and where we can bring communities and connections together for a defined purpose,” she says. “We have an opportunity to deliver value through technology and opportunities to grow audience reach and engagement measurements.”

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