A rising number of events companies are confident that ‘COVID-19 confirms the value of face-to-face events’ and anticipate the key sector for corporate travel will bounce back quickly

The latest Global Barometer from UFI, the global association of the exhibition industry, has highlighted a gradually improving situation for the sector. While globally, 51% of companies reported a loss in 2020, and 57% had to reduce their workforce, projections are for 2021 revenues to reach 47% of 2019 levels and more than three quarters (78%) of companies are confident that COVID-19 has reinforced the value of face-to-face events, and that the sector will recover quickly.

The respected research provides a regular pulse of the industry and the latest edition of the bi-annual industry survey is based on research concluded in Jun-2021, and includes data from a record number of 474 companies in 64 countries and regions. The extensive study includes outlooks and analysis for 23 countries and regions – Australia, Brazil, Chile, China, Colombia, France, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Russia, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Thailand, Turkey, the UAE, the UK and the US – as well as an additional five aggregated regional zones.

There are obvious notable differences by region and by country due to different phases of the Coronavirus pandemic, government restrictions on events and travel and general sentiment, but aggregated on a global level the research the situation is gradually improving, and there is a strong belief that the sector, primarily driven by physical exhibitions and business events, will bounce back quickly.

While the results highlight the strong impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the global exhibition industry in 2020, in terms of operations, the proportion of companies globally now expecting “no activity” for the last quarter of 2021 has fallen from 53%, in January, to less than 10%, while the proportion of companies with “normal activity” has increased from 12%, to close to 50%.

Several markets have now reopened, but the majority of companies in all regions expect both local and national exhibitions to open again in the coming 12 months, and international exhibitions to reopen in the first half of 2022. When asked what element would most help towards the “bounce-back” of exhibitions, the majority of companies rank “lifting of current travel restrictions” (71% of answers), “readiness of exhibiting companies and visitors to participate again” (58% of answers), and “lifting of current public policies that apply locally to exhibitions” (55% of answers) as the key drivers.

In line with results from the last Barometer six months ago, “impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the business” and “state of the economy in home market” are considered to be the two most important business issues, selected by 29% and 19% of respondents. “Global economic developments” (15% of respondents) “impact of digitisation” (10% of respondents) and “internal management challenges” (9% of respondents) also remain high on the list of key business issues.

In terms of future exhibition formats, global results indicate that 78% (up from 64% six months ago, and 57% 12 months ago) of respondents are confident that “COVID-19 confirms the value of face-to-face events”, anticipating that the sector will bounce back quickly (39% “Yes, for sure” and 39% “Most probably”). Worryingly though, one in ten (10%) companies state they will have to permanently close if there is no business for the next six months.

With the value of face-to-face the level of respondents agreeing with the statement of “virtual events replacing physical events” continues to fall, from 17% 12 months ago, to 14% six months ago, to just 11% in the latest edition (3% “Yes, for sure” and 8% “Most probably”). More than half (53%) disagreed fully stating “definitely not”.

There remains a push to hybrid events while restrictions remain in place, but levels are similarly declining. Just over three in four companies (76%) consider that there is “a push towards hybrid events, more digital elements at events” (26% “Yes, for sure” and 50% “Most probably”), down from 80% six months ago and 82% 12 months ago.

Sustainability will be an important part of the future travel and exhibition space and further research from UFI, ‘Status of Sustainability in the Exhibition Industry’, identifies that exhibitors and visitors both believe exhibitions can help them save time and money, while reducing travel to multiple locations and the related carbon footprint. The new report on the status of sustainability in the exhibition industry, including results from surveys conducted by UFI research partner Explori, suggests that the industry’s transition towards sustainability has progressed to halfway between “only starting” and “very advanced”.

Even though the COVID-19 pandemic has severely hit the economy, the fundamentals remain, and sustainability is a strong priority for exhibitions and their participants. For 86% of exhibitors and 87% of visitors, travelling to an exhibition helps save time, while for 84% of exhibitors and 83% of visitors it helps save money. For 67% of exhibitors and 64% of visitors, travelling to an exhibition, where they can do multiple things under one roof and avoid separate flights to other locations, helps to reduce their carbon footprint.

In parallel, the majority consider the environmental impact of the tradeshow sector to be important to them, and they believe that improving this environmental impact will become increasingly more important to the sector’s long-term success. Across all segments (organisers, venues and service providers) there is a feeling that the rate of transition towards sustainability is around halfway between “only starting the transition” and “very advanced”, and, in general, exhibition participants also rate the efforts of the industry as “average”, in this regard.

The research has found that investments from the exhibition industry for programmes related to sustainability haven’t been as affected by the COVID-19 pandemic as other priorities. In Jun-2020, while 85% of companies had stopped or decreased their overall level of investments, that was the case for “only” 54% of companies for investments for programmes related to sustainability, and there was “no” or “limited impact” for activities related to sustainability for 51% of them.

89% of companies from the exhibition industry believe public investments to be necessary (43% “for a significant share” and 46% “as essential and necessary for most of the investments”). Most importantly, “fundamentals remain” for exhibition participants. In 2021, 86% of exhibitors and 87% of visitors say that travelling to an exhibition helps them save time, while 84% of exhibitors and 83% of visitors say it helps save money. Meanwhile, 67% of exhibitors and 64% of visitors believe that travelling to an exhibition, where they can do multiple things under one roof and avoid separate flights to other places, helps them reduce their carbon footprint.

Having said that, lower proportions of participants – although still a majority – believe that the tradeshow sector’s environmental impact remains important to them (51% of exhibitors and 52% of visitors) while 58% of both exhibitors and visitors consider that improving this environmental impact will become increasingly more important to the sector’s long-term success.

But, in terms of environmental impact, what are the priorities and how can they be achieved? Here we see significant differences when comparing the views of participants and of the industry (and the type of activity within the industry) when it comes to identifying the key areas of material impact: plastic and food come first for participants, while travel and booths come first for the industry.

77% of exhibitors and 65% of visitors believe that “organisations that organise and set-up events” are responsible for helping the tradeshow industry improve its environmental impact. This responsibility also relies on exhibiting companies for 53% of exhibitors and 54% of visitors.

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