These are “in between” times. After a catastrophic 2020, our industry saw more reason to be hopeful in 2021. This year, we saw markets starting to re-open around the world – but not the full reopening we had hoped for, as we continue to be challenged by new waves and new variants of COVID. We are still facing an outlook of “stop and go” for show organisers – the most difficult situation possible for our industry. But as we head towards the end of the year, we have passed a remarkable tipping point: Less than a year after the first vaccination campaigns began, more than half the world’s population have received at least one dose, with more than 26 million doses of the vaccine being given daily.

So, it is time to look beyond the pandemic challenge, and towards the trends that will shape our industry in 2022 and beyond. As every year, the UFI team has been speaking to many of our members and industry leaders from all around the world. In five concise themes, here is what we believe will shape the next 12 – 18 months.

Customer retention
In this “In between” time, travel remains depressed – with fewer people able to attend exhibitions. At the same time, the urge to return to the show floor is tangible. The experience on site is different – with unfamiliar set ups shaped by health regulations, for example. Last year, we wrote that returning shows would focus mainly on the “trade” in trade show – and that is what we see, with sellers reporting good business with the buyers they meet, and referring to “high quality visitors”. As the pandemic complexities diminish going forward, we will see how fast and to what degree we will welcome pre pandemic customers back, and to what degree we will see fewer, more senior attendees becoming the norm.

Climate change and carbon reductions
Working jointly as an industry, we have formulated an industry wide pledge to deliver “net zero carbon events” by 2050 at the latest. We are working with the United Nations on this action, and we presented this pledge and the work ahead at COP26 in Glasgow. Within weeks, hundreds of businesses from across our sector have signed up. This demonstrates how high up on everyone’s agenda sustainability has risen. Customers, governments, investors, employees are all increasingly demanding that we rapidly decrease the carbon footprint of our industry. We don’t start this ‘race to zero’ from zero, and we have a strong case to make as an industry that every exhibition that we organise helps to reduce carbon emissions – as we aggregate an industry and its players at one location at the same time, saving a multitude of individual business trips instead.

Data & digital debate
The discussion about data stewardship, data ownership, and data monetisation will only grow in relevance as our industry’s business model evolves towards more holistically connecting supply and demand. Yes, “face to face” will remain at the core of the events industry, but tomorrow’s champions of our industry will be those companies who find the best activation between on-site industry events and online communities, content and services. Platform solutions are here to stay. Expect to see consolidation taking place as well as more clearly defined business models in that space.

A new staffing narrative
Most companies have been forced to let some employees go during the pandemic. In addition, some colleagues have left our industry to take on positions in seemingly more stable industries and sectors. Job security, salaries, and seemingly less stressful positions are the top reasons HR departments hear when dealing with these departures.

Yet our sector has always been able to attract bright, motivated, and uniquely talented people – and this will not change. But we will be well advised to re-think how we position our businesses, and to write a new narrative focused on why a career in business events stands out. For a generation that is driven by the search for purpose, looking for meaning in their work, wanting to be involved – we can offer them what no other sector can: Being there where the future is taking shape, and being a member of the community that makes it happen.

Tipping points
In “tipping point” theories, we focus on one event or development that will change something forever. And, for the foreseeable future, we will spend a lot of time discussing potential tipping points, from customer behaviour to climate change, from staff retention to the covid pandemic.

However, so far, we have not seen the “Uber” disruption moment in our industry, where a digital newcomer rewrites our business model. Instead, rather the opposite, our industry has embraced digital solutions, alongside more traditional services, enriching our offerings and value.

We have not seen a pandemic tipping point either, with buyers and sellers embracing online events over the on site tradeshows experience – again rather the opposite, with buyers and sellers marking digital trade shows with an extremely low Net Promoter Score of -51.

We have once again seen the solidity of the face to face business model.

But we are called upon to find the right answers, perhaps the right mix, to many challenges – from exhibitor and visitor retention to climate change.

Kind regards,

Kai Hattendorf, UFI CEO & Managing Director