Temporary Fix or Permanent Change? An AV Perspective on the Evolution of Trade Shows

Sean Wargo, AVIXA’S senior director of market intelligence, says of events: “We need to move away from this idea that there’s this calendared moment … it doesn’t make any sense. It should just exist as content that has long tail.” The name AVIXA may not ring a bell with you, but you’re likely familiar with InfoComm, the largest professional audiovisual trade show in North America. InfoComm became the Audiovisual and Integrated Experience Association (AVIXA) in 2017, to reflect a more diverse membership and the creative outcomes that are a result of AV. Sean Wargo joined the nonprofit organization as senior director of market intelligence just as it was in the process of rebranding. “The idea was we were recognizing — and I think this is relevant to a lot of events in many other parts of the industry — that the center of our industry’s efforts is designing, building, augmenting, enhancing experiences and so we built that into the name with ‘Integrated Experiences,’” Wargo said. “But we also felt that reaffirming our technological roots in audiovisual was important, even though the lines between AV, IT, security, signage — all that’s really blurring.” AVIXA’s members, Wargo said, include “integrators, live events producers, some IT companies, manufacturers, distributors, the full value chain of what we call the pro AV market, which is really traditional AV with live events and other things thrown in. We also have a lot of members that actually come from the end user community. To us, what that means is, technology managers for higher ed, for corporate, for hospitality, anybody whose job it is to manage the AV assets for their company. Oftentimes they also have an IT title associated with that.” Convene sat down with Wargo to hear how AVIXA has retooled its own trade shows — international versions of InfoComm, and Integrated Systems trade shows in Europe and Russia — and its organizational model in the wake of the pandemic. How has life changed at AVIXA with events moving online over the last year? We own, manage, and operate events and so we are keenly interested in, of course, what happens with the changing business model. InfoComm was supposed to be going back to in-person this June. We decided to push that to October. Our event in Europe, ISE, Integrated Systems Europe, also was originally scheduled for February. It got pushed to June and now is going to this localized, fragmented event instead of being in Barcelona with the normal trade-show presence. What we’ve seen as well is that there is now an accelerated appetite [for what was] always this question in the marketplace about how do we extend our audiences beyond those that are in-person, whether it’s just keeping the content alive and making it available in a downloadable or streamable fashion, but also livestreaming in some cases and allowing people to watch from remote locations. So all that’s accelerated and amplified. We did InfoComm

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Sean Wargo, AVIXA’S senior director of market intelligence, says of events: “We need to move away from this idea that there’s this calendared moment … it doesn’t make any sense. It should just exist as content that has long tail.”

The name AVIXA may not ring a bell with you, but you’re likely familiar with InfoComm, the largest professional audiovisual trade show in North America. InfoComm became the Audiovisual and Integrated Experience Association (AVIXA) in 2017, to reflect a more diverse membership and the creative outcomes that are a result of AV.

Sean Wargo joined the nonprofit organization as senior director of market intelligence just as it was in the process of rebranding. “The idea was we were recognizing — and I think this is relevant to a lot of events in many other parts of the industry — that the center of our industry’s efforts is designing, building, augmenting, enhancing experiences and so we built that into the name with ‘Integrated Experiences,’” Wargo said. “But we also felt that reaffirming our technological roots in audiovisual was important, even though the lines between AV, IT, security, signage — all that’s really blurring.”

AVIXA’s members, Wargo said, include “integrators, live events producers, some IT companies, manufacturers, distributors, the full value chain of what we call the pro AV market, which is really traditional AV with live events and other things thrown in. We also have a lot of members that actually come from the end user community. To us, what that means is, technology managers for higher ed, for corporate, for hospitality, anybody whose job it is to manage the AV assets for their company. Oftentimes they also have an IT title associated with that.”

Convene sat down with Wargo to hear how AVIXA has retooled its own trade shows — international versions of InfoComm, and Integrated Systems trade shows in Europe and Russia — and its organizational model in the wake of the pandemic.

How has life changed at AVIXA with events moving online over the last year?

We own, manage, and operate events and so we are keenly interested in, of course, what happens with the changing business model. InfoComm was supposed to be going back to in-person this June. We decided to push that to October. Our event in Europe, ISE, Integrated Systems Europe, also was originally scheduled for February. It got pushed to June and now is going to this localized, fragmented event instead of being in Barcelona with the normal trade-show presence.

What we’ve seen as well is that there is now an accelerated appetite [for what was] always this question in the marketplace about how do we extend our audiences beyond those that are in-person, whether it’s just keeping the content alive and making it available in a downloadable or streamable fashion, but also livestreaming in some cases and allowing people to watch from remote locations. So all that’s accelerated and amplified.

We did InfoComm completely virtual last June. We’re hoping to make it more of a hybrid model this October but [there are changes] happening in the market with this hybrid model now. We’ve always wanted trade shows to be focused on the interaction that happens on the show floor. The content wrapped around it and within it was meant as anchor points, as chances to educate and engage people, but I think what we learned, perhaps in hindsight, is that that can pull people away from the trade-show floor. So the nice thing about the new models emerging is you can wrap the content around the edges of the show, have pre-event, post-event … and then once we’re in person, yes, maybe you have a few highlight events throughout. But you’re really focused on getting people on the trade-show floor, which is where they want to network and interact with each other.

Generating revenue from virtual trade shows, providing exhibitors with ROI, and managing costs around hybrid events are big challenges, however.

Yes, that’s the question: Is there revenue opportunity there? Is there the chance to charge people for the full experience — the online experience plus the in-person experience? Because there are very real costs associated with capturing and producing the content in a professional and high-quality fashion that it therefore is desirable. Even just standing up cameras in rooms and optimizing angles and lighting and sound and all that sort of stuff is not a simple or inexpensive task.

So I think that probably puts further pressure on having fewer of these televisable, let’s call it, or streamable parts of content — and the rest really is more of like Zoom calls, a speaker in a room with an audience and not worrying about doing lots of production on it to extend that. Right now, obviously we’re still in that mode of mostly everything has to be virtual for safety guideline purposes. As a trade-show operator we’re keenly interested to see how in-person events start to happen. As industry analysts we’re also watching what’s happening in the opportunity for live events, professionals, producers, technology, leasing, rental staging, all those kinds of parts of the business — how are they adapting.

Certainly what we’re seeing is support for some of the virtualization through pre- and post-production support, some leasing of equipment, cameras, or headphones, or audio and video production equipment to help companies basically capture and distribute the conference content.

We’ve done that ourselves here. So we’re watching that and that’s what’s probably helping live events as an industry to at least somewhat survive even though we know the hit has been large and real to those businesses. The live events part of our association membership is seeing revenue declines well above 50 percent in a lot of cases, even as they try to pivot to other models.

With the rentals you refer to, are those very small in-person meetings that are then broadcast or maybe there’s a broadcast studio at convention centers?

Yes. I would say venues, even corporate enterprises — in a lot of cases, they have empty office space. They may be using that towards a “broadcast capability” … we’re certainly seeing live event companies, venues, education, hospitality, many different markets building out these capabilities.

Question being, does that compete with traditional broadcast? Is it augmented? It’s different content that probably would never have made its way to traditional broadcast but it is a real part of that. I think it’s small event but it’s also large trade show, bigger corporate events that are trying to maintain their branding and communication efforts out to their customers, audiences, employees. So there’s a ramped need and desire to produce and distribute content.

We’ve had YouTube, TikTok, LinkedIn video, all those things had been happening anyway. It’s now just become the preferred mode, a required mode of communication in a lot of ways.

Do you see this as a temporary or permanent retooling of the industry?

Even aside from pandemic-related health and safety guidelines, herd immunity, vaccination, all those sorts of things, the tail effect of this is the hit to the businesses that would have normally sent people to shows and/or exhibited at them.

The revenues have been cut and so realistically it takes time for the market to recover enough that they’re able to fund that activity in a way that they would have, even once we’re safe to do so. We’ve said the same to our marketplaces — that ’23, ’24 is when you’ll see the live events and hospitality parts of the business really recovering to where they were in 2019.

The hard part about saying that is it sounds dire because it makes it sound like, “Oh gosh, that means we’re not doing anything until that timeframe,” and I think that’s not the message. The message is, absolutely trade shows start to reemerge this year. They’re just smaller and potentially more focused.

The other hope though is what potentially accelerates us faster than we’re all thinking is we can’t forget that trade shows are actually a part of the economy too of a particular channel and almost necessary for business resumption, right? So in order for things to improve within their industries they need the trade shows to facilitate the connections to help the growth happen.

So you could see potentially companies maybe focusing their efforts and saying, “I’m going to go all in big on fewer shows to rebuild my core.” So it could be that we have a dichotomy here. We have big shows that really benefit from a return early as people focus on them and maybe some of the smaller shows are more challenged in that environment. So it takes a while for the tail to extend out but I could see that happening too where there’s such a pent-up demand, because we’re seeing that in our research. There’s pent-up demand for resumption of in-person but we’re also hearing there’s a desire to focus effort — instead of hitting four shows they may hit one show over the next six, 12 months.

I think that’s going to be hard for some show operators. Some of are going to be, at best, flat or down a little and other shows are going to see probably bigger declines.

What is AVIXA’s strategy as a nonprofit and show producer?

We are somewhat of a media company and so the possibility for 365 engagement now is much more real and so we can use those touchpoints in a different way than we’ve thought about before. We do education and certification as well so that type of content doesn’t need to be anchored around an annual or a quarterly event any more. It can be evergreen, perpetual.

When you decouple an event from a place and time it becomes a broadcast, or a channel, a stream, whatever word you want to associate with it. We need to move away from this idea that there’s this calendared moment … it doesn’t make any sense. It should just exist as content that has long tail.

I think it’s going to take a while to figure it out and that’s another reason why it’s a ’23, ’24 story. We’ve been disrupted. We’re adapting very, very quickly but we’re still figuring stuff out and that takes a while.

It’s an exciting time. I think the technology industry and media companies are in an interesting place where I believe the growth potential from here is just phenomenal. Yes, there will be winners and losers from the small-show, large-show perspective but we’ve only just begun to see … we’re early, early days as to what these new business models will be, how they perform. I’m optimistic about the next five, 10 years as a result. I think it’s going to be exciting, for sure.

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.

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