by Steven Hacker | January 01, 2017

The exhibition industry in the United States is enormous and is growing significantly. According to the latest data from the Convention Industry Council, meetings, exhibitions and business travel now represent an economic impact of $283 billion dollars and account for 2.3 million jobs. According to the Center for Exhibition Industry Research Total Index, the industry posted a year-on-year gain of 1.6 percent in the second quarter of 2016—a modest figure, but it marked the 24th consecutive quarter of year-on-year growth and the sixth consecutive quarter the industry has outperformed the macro economy.

All of these metrics are very encouraging and suggest a bright future, but because exhibitions tend to mirror underlying economic circumstances and reflect changing consumer preferences and social and business evolution, things can change without warning. For all of its remarkable resilience, the exhibition industry is also very fragile; in the aftermath of 9/11, continued fears crippled the industry and it took almost two years for exhibitions and events to bounce back.

As we begin a fresh new year, it makes sense to consider which trends industry leaders believe merit our close scrutiny.

Safety First. No one, in my opinion, has a deeper understanding of the global exhibition industry than Ray Bloom, chairman and founder of the IMEX Group. Bloom believes the biggest risk to the industry, both in North America and elsewhere in the world, is security and security concerns, which is why he keeps current with “risk management through regulation and new industry standards,” he said.

Bloom pointed to the new Exhibitions & Meetings Safety & Security Initiative (EMSSI) recently launched by the International Association of Venue Managers, the International Association of Exhibitions & Events, the Exhibition Services & Contractors Association, and the strategic consultancy Keyway during IMEX America. The coalition is creating nationally designated smart practices and guidelines that will be vetted by the Safety Act Office of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Bruce Davidson, director of the department’s Office of Safety Act Implementation, was a guest speaker at the launch, where he stated, “It is our collective responsibility to mitigate the safety and security risks facing attendees, exhibitors and our employees. We must be proactive in our efforts.”

Also worth following when it comes to safety issues is the Worker Identification System (WIS) created by the Exhibition Services & Contractors Association. This national badge system vets workers and then issues name badges, which are used at a growing number of convention centers across the nation; currently, 16 major facilities participate, with more scheduled to join. The system allows workers to use the same credentials that contain a photo ID to gain access to any participating building. “The WIS system, like EMSSI, will be submitted to the Office of Safety Act Implementation for approval,” said Larry Arnaudet, executive director of ESCA. “Our program will complement EMSSI in an area of facility operations that is essential to gaining heightened security while also lowering administrative costs by eliminating redundant badging.”

The Right Connections. Networking, long been considered a pillar of every event and exhibition, is the second-most pressing issue to Bloom. “The challenge of attending a large exhibition with the sense that there are potential new contacts all around—which equals additional value­—is evident,” he said. “How do you identify, locate and then meet each other?”

The answer lies in the rise of social media, coupled with new networking technologies and apps, all rapidly changing the ability to find and connect with “the right kind” of attendees at events, a trend that IMEX calls “finding your tribe.”

This penetration of social media and technology means that event organizers should learn all they can about how social media functions and how different channels and applications can further enhance the potential opportunities and impact different audiences.

Enhancement Technologies. An exciting trend worth tracking for any exhibition organizer is the emergence of virtual and augmented reality—they are different—and immersive environments that can transform otherwise routine trade-show floor encounters into exhilarating and unforgettable experiences.

At the recent International Baking Industry Exposition in Las Vegas, I met with representatives of the digital marketing agency Inhance Digital, there presenting a virtual reality show they had created for their client, AB Mauri, a leading provider of yeast and bakery ingredients. Scores of attendees lined up for a chance to put on VR glasses and enjoy a brief history of baking.

Virtual reality treats users to the experience of a 3D audiovisual show that takes place around you. Augmented reality, on the other hand, superimposes imagery into the reality of the space you occupy. Imagine being seated at a sofa in a 20-by-20 exhibit booth and donning a pair of AR glasses that allow you to see samples of the exhibitors’ product.

Expect to see both technologies utilized at numerous trade shows in the year ahead. They will soon drive marketing at exhibitions of all types and will slash exhibitors’ high freight costs by replacing heavy products with virtual trade-show-floor versions.

Insurance Issues. Jack Buttine, president of John Buttine Inc., a risk strategies company in New York City, expects that more event organizers will require proof of their exhibitors’ liability insurance to transfer the risk of claims from the organizer to the exhibitor. This would reduce the organizer’s costs and protect the pool of claim dollars available to the organizer should the need arise. Organizers are already good at procuring certificates of insurance from bus companies, decorators, etc. “An exhibitor’s liability program completes the risk management circle,” said Buttine.

“Show organizers are also working hard to determine the right amount of property insurance they need and how much liability insurance they should buy to meet their event’s needs,” Buttine said. “Establishing the right general liability limit is not always as simple as knowing how much insurance their venue requires. While insurance rates are now relatively low, they won’t be low forever. When costs go up, knowing what amounts you need will save cost and make good sense.”

There has also been a notable trend toward buying event cancellation insurance with longer terms. “Buyers are taking advantage of low insurance rates by locking in their insurance costs for two or three years and paying in installments when possible,” he said. “Show limits are estimated and updated as either better estimates become available or when events are staged and then audited.”

Future Forecast. Brian Casey, who is stepping down as president and CEO for the Center for Exhibition Industry Research this month, believes that the cost to produce exhibitions is going to increase dramatically. Casey also forecasts that for-profit organizers will be looking even more strongly at acquisitions of association-owned shows. “Many substantial for-profit organizations in the U.S. have already been acquired,” he said. “The association market, therefore, appears to offer opportunities for additional acquisitions if the deals are structured properly.”

While each of the aforementioned trends deserves close attention, chances are we will be surprised by still other new trends. It is a sign of our times that the pace of change is accelerating dramatically, and organizations that will prosper in 2017 and beyond will be those that possess a keen ability to anticipate new challenges while also being able to respond to them quickly. It’s the price we pay for being involved in a dynamic and expanding industry.