April 18, 2024 7:44 PM
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Navigating What’s Ahead Part 1

Key Trends Shaping the Events Industry in 2024

by Chris Kappes, Strategic Advisor and Writer, Exhibit City News

 

“May we live in the most interesting of times.”

We live in a world of relentless transformation. Some good. Some bad. Some uncertain. The good news? Live events are here to stay and evolving.

A recent survey indicates that a staggering 90% of business event delegates felt a negative impact from the absence of live events during COVID-19. However, this crisis ushered in new realities requiring the industry to adapt and reset for the future. What are these top industry trends reshaping realities and what do leaders in the industry have to say?

After a month of discussions with industry leaders representing a cross-section of the event industry, nine key trends emerged: talent shortages, budget constraints, shorter lead times, event curation, industry legislation, the rise of artificial intelligence, sustainability, private equity interest, and the diversification of event companies.

 

Trend One: TALENT-SHORTAGE & NEW HIRES

One of the most widely known facts across the industry is that young people are choosing other careers over trades. Experts reveal that the average age of skilled tradespeople is 56, while the average age of the American office worker is 44. The shortage of young and new skilled labor weighs heavily as one of the most pressing issues facing the industry today.

The Wall Street Journal recently suggested that the diminishing focus on shop classes and skilled trades in schools is a key factor. With so much emphasis on preparing for college, there’s less opportunity for high school students to explore manual skills. A Thumbtack survey backs this up, showing that 82% of young people are told that college is the only path to success, with 59% feeling pressure from family and society to attend a four-year college. Unfortunately, one-third of those surveyed revealed they were never offered shop classes in high school, which often serve as a gateway to skilled trades. Without this exposure, many students don’t even consider trade school as a path to viable career options.

The recent “Event Marketer (EM) 2023 Insights Report” of 38 leading agencies confirms that hiring staff in the creative, account services and management, and production are the top three priorities for 2024.

Chris Griffin, President & CEO of Crew XP, highlights the challenge: “300,000 people have left the industry post-COVID and not returned. This left the industry short-handed at a time when shows came roaring back post-COVID. Finding skilled labor and filling key roles, such as estimators and project managers, is extremely difficult. Moreover, we’re dealing with an evolving workforce driven by generational changes, introducing new perspectives on work ethics and expectations from younger generations. Repopulating our workforce is a generational problem.”

In his role as the new President of Experiential Designers and Producers Association (EDPA), Griffin emphasizes the importance of industry leaders visiting trade schools, junior colleges, and high schools to educate students about the event industry as a promising career choice. “We’re working hard at EDPA to engage and educate tomorrow’s workforce about our industry.”

Sean Combs, CEO of Steelhead, echoes Griffin’s sentiments, emphasizing the need to recruit and train their own talent to overcome the loss of institutional knowledge in the industry. “We lost a lot of industry talent, which keeps me up at night. We’re not going to the free agency market for most of our hiring. Our plan is to recruit and train our own talent.”

Brett Haney, CEO of Derse, is encouraged by the new generation of tradeshow talent entering the business. “I view this as a very positive development. Derse today is a much younger company than we were pre-COVID. New associates from outside the industry are bringing us fresh new perspectives and ideas.”

It’s important to note that corporate event teams have also been affected by the pandemic. Liz Nacron, partner and president of Creative & Production at Live Marketing, points out that, “Corporate event departments have been hard hit as many experienced managers retired. However, the new generation of event planners we’re working with bring new skill sets, requirements, with an increased focus on analytics, which is a welcome change.”

Talent shortage is not only impacting the domestic event industry, but the international industry as well. Rajnikant Kedia, Founder and Managing Director of Insta Worldwide Group with offices in the USA, Europe, Dubai, and India, “Finding the right talent and training is a real challenge for us across all of our offices.”

Takeaway: Experienced legacy event personnel left or retired after COVID. Recruiting, training and building the next generation is accelerating.  

 

Trend Two: BUDGET STRESS

Economic fluctuations, political decisions, and social injustices continually influence buyer spending and budget allocation. As a result, exhibit footprints are shrinking due to a greater percentage of the budget allocated to tactical activities. Exhibitor Advocate’s “Material Handling & Labor Rate Survey” of 16 U.S. cities, showed a 29% increase in display, labor, and material handling rates since 2017, far outpacing price fluctuations of other business services. EM reported at the EDPA Annual Meeting that corporate 2024 budgets will be flat, or slightly up, and cost increases are reducing show schedules.

Mark Crane, owner of Acer Exhibits, acknowledges the challenge: “We’re all doing less with less. Clients are sacrificing exhibit structure, features, aesthetic impact, and experiences to cover services costs. To counteract this, we are offering a lot more ‘flexible’ options such as rent-to-own, installment payments, and phased implementations to help clients get the exhibit they want within their financial constraints.”

Liz Lathan, Co-Founder and CMO of The Community Factory, formerly a Dell & IBM event lead, speculates, “Event budget dollars are shifting towards AI to accelerate product development. I’m hearing from our community that this investment is going to be later reallocated back into events once new products are ready for introduction.”

Companies are also diversifying their budget across multiple event channels to reach their audiences. Anne Trumpeter, Partner in Strategic Account Development at Live Marketing, said, “Tradeshows, once the primary place to discover products and suppliers, are now part of a broader, multi-channel strategy. Hybrid events such as sales meetings, VIP outings, and product launches receive a larger share of the overall event budget.”

Takeaway: Inflationary impact and economic uncertainty are dampening 2024 event budgets. 

 

Trend Three: SHORTER LEAD TIMES

Gone are the days of a six-to-twelve month event planning cycle. Lead times are shrinking as companies make more last-minute decisions regarding whether to exhibit. This short lead time phenomenon is not unique to the event industry; as consumers, we expect immediate responses to our orders and services. However, the complexity of projects in our industry and accelerated timelines cause angst within the design, build, and service ecosystem.

Sean Combs, CEO of Steelhead, understands the exhibitors’ mindset behind shorter timelines, “Shorter timelines put the entire event supply chain in a bind. But as a business owner and operator, I understand that ‘just in time’ decision making ensures they can present the most compelling and relevant story when exhibiting.”

Jason Popp, President & CEO of Moss, emphasizes the importance of speed, stating that their, “business model is designed around producing faster with consistency.”

Adam Beckett, CEO of AGAM, Modular Display System, points out that AGAM’s outsource business model serves as a relief valve when time and capacity are limited. He says, “The event industry supply chain is more robust than ever and able to provide outsourced support when and where it’s needed.”

Takeaway: Just in time, mindset is changing event business models. 

 

Trend Four: EVENT CURATION

Gone are the days when event organizers could view their role as solely organizing events. “Declining event revenues due to smaller exhibit footprints, reduced travel budgets, safety concerns and more, are transforming ‘one and done’ event curation to ‘always on’ pre-during-post event community developers and nurturers.”

This shift is echoed by Bob Priest Heck, CEO of Freeman, who emphasizes the importance of realizing that event organizations are not merely selling real estate but are engaging with the currency of time. “It’s not about talking to a captive audience, but husbanding time spent with an audience in a way that engages and captivates. This should be relevant, cadenced dialogue that extends year-round.”

Denzil Rankine and Marco Giberti, in their seminal book, Reinventing Live: The Always-On Future of Events, emphasize the changing landscape. “New generations of business buyers want consumer-like experiences in everything they do. They expect instant results on their devices and challenge how their time is spent. Corporate event marketers expect performance, measurability and return on investment from their event investments as they assess the range of channels and choices available to reach their customers.”

 Takeaway: Event producers become experience curators, engaging audiences year-round using omnichannel marketing. 

 

Trend Five: INDUSTRY LEGISLATION

The $27.5 billion tradeshow and conference planning business is increasingly becoming recognized and understood by government leaders. The dire impact of COVID led industry leaders to Capitol Hill in Washington DC to lobby for aid, resulting in new legislation. “Lobbying efforts, supported by many event organizations like EDPA, are now being recognized by government leaders,” shares Griffin. “Before COVID, the size, scale and impact of the event industry on GDP wasn’t. That’s changing.”

The Job’s Act allows the use of Pell Grant money for trade skills and training. Efforts are underway to address visa delays, which have been a hindrance for exhibitors coming from outside the United States. There are also concerns about the Music Licensing fee for tradeshow use and the Pandemic Risk Insurance Program, aimed at providing compensation for business interruption losses resulting from future pandemics or public health emergencies.  

Takeaway: Lobbying has resulted in government leader recognition and new industry investment and oversite. 

 

This story originally appeared in the Q1 2024 issue of Exhibit City News, p. 40. For original layout, visit https://issuu.com/exhibitcitynews/docs/ecn_q1_2024. This digital version includes Trends One through Five. For Six through Nine (to completion), please stay tuned for next week’s digital release.

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