Here’s to a Safe Reopening of the Exhibit & Events Industry


Hopeful signs are everywhere. Slowly but certainly, trade shows are returning. More than ever, we have all become acutely conscious of the global trade show community as we watched videos of the Hunan Auto Show or read that Germany was separating trade shows from ‘large gatherings.’ acknowledging that business events are in a different category from other large gatherings like Oktoberfest.

And while we have enough evidence that the immediate future of trade shows is not in doubt, we also understand there will be changes that will occur as organizers, venues, general contractors, and others implement health and safety measures.

The Most Common New Practices

Reviewing some of the steps taken around the world as trade shows reopen, we wonder which practices will be permanent and which will disappear, theoretically, once a vaccine is developed and approved.

  • Will we still have to widen the aisles to encourage social distancing?
  • Will we start to shake hands again?
  • Will we continue to wear masks?

Some easy-to-implement practices have been adopted universally, like reminding attendees and exhibitors to wash their hands often and to visit the hand sanitizer stations. Other efforts involve technology like using thermal imaging cameras to determine whether people entering the hall are healthy. Upgrading the quality of the air with external air intake deserves widespread adoption. Video conferencing is an idea whose time has come. Long before social distancing, finding a seat for popular presentations has always been a challenge.

Which Practices are Keepers?

A few unusual measures are in play, like insisting on one-way traffic in the aisles or requiring exhibitors to wear face shields that cover their entire faces. The jury appears to be out on wearing gloves. For that practice to work as it should, people would have to change gloves often—after every time they touch something. And if the gloves were to be changed as often as necessary, waste management would need to be stepped up.

The Opportunities for New Technology

Meanwhile, the technology that has become standard in exhibits will be scrutinized. Touch screens are probably going to go the way of the card swipe machines. And no one is going to want to wear VR glasses passed from attendee to attendee. There are many new opportunities to develop touchless technologies to facilitate engagement. We might be using our phones to activate messaging technology or having some other sort of RFID activation that is consistent from exhibit to exhibit.

Honing in on content delivery, IACC, an association of affiliated global convention centers, suggested message reinforcement by using polls or surveys or by pushing content to devices. Setting up remote chat rooms and virtual question and answer sessions through devices are other ideas from the IACC’s Virtual Connect event. Another one is establishing education hubs that can work live and virtually and which would attract participants who want to dig deeper into a presentation.

Coffee Anyone?

Then there’s hospitality. The days of grab and go are over–and that’s not a bad thing. Servers will be taking care of attendees who will be required to maintain a distance and not mob the coffee service. Documentation of food safety measures will be available and necessary for catering in exhibits. Social distancing, on a positive note, might contribute to more in-depth conversations as long hospitality lines will be replaced by more one-on-one encounters over espresso.

About Those Lines

Lines will be a challenge. When have lines NOT been a challenge? Registration lines will disappear, and no one will miss them. Many new touchless registration processes are in development or currently in use. Restroom lines, on the other hand, are more of a problem. Global associations have serious doubts, for example, about the sanitation situation in the restrooms of large facilities. Upgrading those will be expensive but necessary.

What about lunch lines? We’re so used to being in line with other people that the experience of chatting while waiting for our slice of pizza has become part of the trade show experience. But social distancing will change all that, perhaps by allowing only so many people to enter a restaurant or cafeteria at a single time. Right now, different associations and venues have solutions on the table, but none has become the clear winner.

If these examples are not enough, elevators, escalators, and taxi queues are going to be subject to social distancing. How this will happen is under consideration.

More Suggestions for a Safer Trade Show and Event Environment

UFI, the Global Association of the Exhibit Industry, suggests that transactions should all be contactless and that any materials distributed at the show site be electronic. UFI further suggests monitoring real-time crowd movements using tracking devices such as badges, wristbands, or heat maps. Another idea from this organization is to set up medical service points and to make sure everyone involved, including set up personnel and other suppliers, be tested for COVID-19—and if they are ill, to be restricted from entering the hall.

At the heart of these measures is implicit compliance on the part of the exhibitions and events industry, which, at its core, is about bringing people together to grow business. People, says UFI, are at the heart of the business model. Safety has always been a prominent concern in the industry, but the pandemic means that more stringent safety measures need to be in place. Major convention centers are working toward the Global Biorisk Certification (GBAC) STAR™  sanitation accreditation. As a division of the International Sanitary Supply Association (ISSA), GBAC STAR™ is focused on ensuring a clean, safe and healthy environment.

So What Is An Exhibit Manager To Do?

Education. One thing that has come out of this working at home period is fantastic educational resources: webinars, LinkedIn courses, online content. Ivy League schools offer almost-free classes via Coursera. Before trade shows ramp up again, get a competitive edge by educating yourself.

Compliance. Admit it: we’re all a little upset that our lives have been sidetracked. But when it comes to your career, follow the new protocols. Learn how you can bring an innovative approach to the new regulations. (If you’re in healthcare, you’re used to this.) Make sure you review safety protocols before deciding to exhibit.

Planning.  Several theories suggest that limiting the number of people in a venue at any one time is a good practice. This, their proponents say, might lead to extended show hours and longer shows in general. Preparation is key.

Staffing. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends limiting the number of staffers who work in your exhibit. Be direct in letting your exhibit staff know what to expect—and what you expect from them.  If you have someone who refuses to wear a mask when masks are required, for example, dismiss them. Make sure your exhibit technology works so that contactless interactions are not a distraction. At the same time, consider that without relying on engagement tactics that are no longer part of your program, your staff will be called upon to be more knowledgeable and personable. Body language will once again be critical.

Finally, trust your exhibit partners to protect your interests. When you don’t understand how to implement a directive, ask for help. Learn about best practices and adopt them. Your exhibit partner, more than ever, is your lifeline.

21 Questions To Ask