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The show must go on

25 March 2020 By Ed Cropley

It’s hard to recreate the Geneva Motor Show as a virtual experience. Each March the global auto industry descends on the Swiss city to show off its latest models and debate the future of the business. This year, however, it fell victim to the coronavirus. Even before nationwide shutdowns kicked in, organisers of other trade shows and exhibitions are similarly scrambling to cope with Covid-19, which has closed everything from California’s Coachella music festival to conferences on the disease itself.

Before the pandemic struck, the $30 billion global exhibitions sector was growing at 3% a year, according to Reed Exhibitions, parent of the popular Comic-Con shows and a unit of $36 billion London-listed Relx. The industry is also asset light – venues are mostly rented – and extremely profitable, with organisers able to charge both exhibitors and visitors. Informa, the London-listed market leader whose shares have halved this year, had a 30% operating margin in 2019.

This year, however, is set to be more horror show than beauty pageant. The best outcome would be for the virus to subside sufficiently for cancelled events to be restaged in the second half of the year. But this depends on the availability of often massive venues. Barcelona’s Mobile World Congress, for instance, was meant to house 100,000 delegates before it was shelved in late February. If events cannot be rescheduled, organisers’ least-bad option is giving exhibitors a credit to next year’s bash, rather than a refund.

Another countermeasure is to take events online. But that works mainly in tech-savvy industries like software. Conexpo-Con, North America’s biggest construction-industry love-in, which was held in Las Vegas earlier this month, is as bricks-and-mortar as it gets. Yet it remains an unmissable marketplace for both sellers and buyers.

That points to the trade-show juggernaut, the largest slice of the events industry, getting back on the road when the virus recedes. Its fragmented structure is less likely to survive, however. The top 20 players, including Reed and $7 billion Informa, currently account for less than a third of the market. A slew of operators with shallow pockets and narrow portfolios may not survive the virus shock. One addition to the 2021 circuit may well be exhibitors exhibiting themselves to each other.


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