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On the Front Lines of COVID-19: EXHIBITORLIVE or Dead?

Industry Megashow Embroiled in Refund Battle with Show Exhibitors

by Amadeus Finlay

As in life, there comes a time in the business cycle when nothing can prepare an industry for what is about to hit. 2020 has seen the Western capital economy shaken to its core by a pandemic and society, as well as the stock market, has been sent reeling. Some industries have managed to withstand the crisis, but the face-to-face marketing world has been uprooted and left gasping for air. Just ask EXHIBITOR magazine.

Before COVID-19 turned everything on its head, March was supposed to see event professionals from across the world gather at Mandalay Bay Casino in Las Vegas for the industry’s premier event, EXHIBITORLIVE.  With many in the industry, including this writer, contacting the publication for updates on whether the event would go ahead, just over two weeks before the doors opened in Sin City, EXHIBITOR announced the annual megashow publication was to be postponed—first for mid-August and then 2021.

Undoubtedly the correct decision, but it was also one that came too late, and too close to install, to offer any meaningful breathing room. An official statement from the magazine on March 17 read, in part, “…we communicated with those inquiring about the status of EXHIBITORLIVE that any one of the following would… postpone the show: Federal officials creating restrictions on the event Nevada, Clark County, or Las Vegas officials creating restrictions on the event Mandalay Bay or MGM Resorts closing the building.” To make an independent decision, and earlier, based on medical well-being rather than red tape was notably absent from the statement.

In fairness to the Minneapolis-based publication, the industry has never encountered a crisis as a global pandemic, never mind knowing what actions to take to soften the blow. But that is where quick thinking and effective communication from leadership comes into play, and in the case of EXHIBITOR, there was more than a touch of rabbits-in-headlights syndrome in how they navigated the situation. It was this uncertainty that saw sympathies from exhibitors impacted by the cancellation start to sheer away.

As the founder and CEO of a 23-year-old company who wished to remain anonymous commented, “I really appreciate everything the team at EXHIBITOR magazine group does for the industry on an on-going basis, but the takeaway from the situation is that show management should immediately send out information to their exhibitors so we know what the options are for monies paid. Then again, nowhere in the fine print does it mention pandemics, and how anyone can manage that.”

In such uncertain times, delays are expensive. Some exhibitors reported that more than two weeks passed before discovering the status of their investment. And when it was confirmed that the monies would be rolled over to 2021, not everyone was satisfied. Nor was everyone properly communicated with.

“No one from EXHIBITORLIVE has reached out to me, Giles or Simon to discuss the show, the move to 2021 or partnership/the state of the Orbus during this crisis,” says Natalie Whited, vice president of marketing at Orbus.

“Nimlok/Orbus have exhibited at EXHIBITORLIVE for over 30 years, “she continues, “and has invested in many advertising programs during that timeline. A phone call in good faith to discuss and navigate what could or could not be done would have gone a long way. In March and April, when asked if the dollars invested in exhibit space could be moved to the 2021 show, the answer was no, and then show was ultimately moved to 2021—which was mass emailed in an announcement on May 20. No phone call, no personal approach.”

Orbus participates in more than 50 tradeshows each year, including some of the nation’s biggest. But EXHIBITORLIVE 2020 was unique, with Whited reporting that EXHIBITOR was the only organization that, “refused to truly partner, meet in the middle and work together to understand our situation and problem solve. Many organizations and association groups that we work with offered full or majority reimbursement, one of which had a show April 2-4.”

But not all are as gentle on the publication as Natalie Whited. David Mihalik, CEO of ELITeXPO, is leading the charge against EXHIBITOR, and his sword is very much sharpened for war.

“This all originally gained traction from a LinkedIn post I made a few weeks ago regarding EXHIBITORLIVE’s failure to address proper reasoning to not offer refunds for the cancelled event,” says Mihalik. “At that point we had a number of companies who joined in the conversation.”

“Our efforts produced a letter from [EXHIBITOR magazine’s publisher] Lee Knight’s attorney who stated that we don’t deserve a refund. But they never addressed the fact that the show in reality was “cancelled” and not “postponed.” They cannot hide behind moving the show to the same time next year in 2021 and still call it a 2020 show.”

A release from Knight published by EXHIITOR states, “Had we chosen to cancel, exhibitors would have received refunds using a calculation based on the original payment less event expense paid out by the producer up to the date of the cancellation… with 95 percent of our expenses to produce the show already incurred and paid, an exhibitor with a $10,000 space payment would have received a $500 refund. If we had chosen the cancellation option, those who intend to return to the next EXHIBITORLIVE would have to pay a completely new and full exhibit space fee. Nothing from their 2020 exhibit space fee would apply toward future shows.”

But Mihalik doesn’t buy it. “The contract states if the show is cancelled then the exhibitor deposits would be subject to a deduction of all the shows costs until then. That’s why Lee sent that industry letter explaining how the refund process would work and why he felt he was doing us all a favor. We estimated that this show generates $2.5 million in prepaid deposits. Plus, they already started charging for pre-show advertising prior to the show cancelling so they also earned revenue for those who paid to advertise. He also doesn’t address that, nor does he address that since this is effectively the “2021” show, exhibitors who choose to exhibit can keep their deposits and then those costs that were incurred would transfer. This would eliminate a lot of the 2020 costs that he wants to deduct from our 2020 show deposits. But glaringly, he does not offer to provide any transparency as to how he derived this 95 percent of cost against our refund!”

And EXHIBITOR isn’t the only entity in Mihalik’s firing line. “I would also like to include my disappointment in that efforts to get any of our industry associations to assist with a statement of support or to advocate on our behalf have not been supported at all. If industry associations can’t offer a statement of support to its constituents, what are we supporting them for?”

Backing Mihalik’s play is Siddarth Sawhney, president at Modern Event Rental. “I sent several emails asking questions,” he explains, “and I got a letter from their lawyer stating I am stalking them, that I am not allowed to contact EXHIBITOR or any staff member. Please keep in mind I have a contract with them. And paid them. All the exhibitors I contacted told me they never get a phone call regarding refunds or any discussion. I want to deescalate the situation. Instead received a legal letter. I personally will never work with this group again, and I am working on organizing a class action suit. They can’t keep on changing the date and calling it a postponement.”

But the cancellation has impacted the community beyond those who were contracted to exhibit. Project manager and industry veteran, Rob Deschenes of Exhibit Central International, was planning to attend this year’s show as an attendee, but the battle between EXHIBITOR and EXHIBITORLIVE has caused him to take pause.  “It is very disappointing. I’m concerned this is not being handling properly and to any satisfaction for the exhibitors and there will no longer be an ExhibitorLive exposition,” says Deschenes. “If anyone should be setting the standard on how to handle this situation it should be EXHIBITORLIVE.”

There are allies, too, and Joe Holgado, president and CEO of Marquis Exhibits, is one, saying: “I am not one of the companies that contracted with EXHIBITOR that is looking for a refund—just supporting those long established colleagues in the industry that have been screwed over by them. I think the organization as a whole is a cartoon by now. They are self-serving rather than existing to serve those in the event industry.”

For companies like Orbus, ELITEeXPO and Modern Event Rental, the trust is gone. “After the way Exhibitor Media Group handled this situation,” reflects Whited, “we will likely never exhibit in the show or advertising programs again. This is very sad for the industry, for EXHIBITOR’s loyal customers that have been treated so poorly at a time when they needed a partner.”

Exhibit City News attempted to reach EXHIBITOR Media Group for a quote, but due to the limitations of COVID-19, we were unable to secure a quote at their office. Have you been impacted by the cancellation of EXHIBITORLIVE 2020? Let us know. Email newsdesk@exhibitcitynews and amadeusf@exhibitcitynews.com for ongoing coverage.

 

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