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Reflecting on CEDIA Expo 2021

By: Kimberly Lancaster

Note: This blog originally posted on Caster Communications blog. You can find it here.

I am one of the attendees of CEDIA Expo 2021. Having attended Expo nearly every year since 1993, I have a lot of perspectives on this show. I came home from Expo in 2001 and woke up to what would become known as 9/11. I watched the show come back from that and grow year-over-year into its heyday before the housing crisis hit. I’ve witnessed the show expand and contract across the past decade. It took a blow last fall when the show did not go on in person, but that was nothing compared to the abandonment that CEDIA Expo faced this past week.

It’s so hard to fully articulate the disappointment that came in those last two weeks of August as one-by-one, and then in droves, exhibitors announced their withdrawal from Expo. I was on the phone with dozens of people each day, sharing what we heard, verifying our sources, seeking confirmations and denials, facing the harsh reality that by the Monday of Expo week, the floor had contracted by 75% and attendance expectations tumbled to under 1000 people. Caster had 7 out-of-our 8 exhibiting clients withdraw from the floor. It was gut-wrenching. There was money lost and money wasted, but more ominous is the fear that tradeshows are going to be unable to come back from COVID. If that’s true, then “business as usual” is a far-distant ideal we may never see again.

I am vaccinated. My Caster team is vaccinated. Among my clients, no one had admitted not being vaccinated. Among all my scheduled media meetings, once again, everyone said they were vaccinated. Even if it was begrudgingly, we accepted we were going wear masks on the floor in stranger-danger situations—but everyone was also admitting they couldn’t wait to hang out together, have drinks, and celebrate. Everyone was willing to jump through whatever hoops necessary to have a “safe and successful” show, even if we knew that in groups of trusted colleagues, we’d likely be mask free and hugging.

Knowing the precautions and risk tolerance that were in place, why did Expo fall apart? Based on my experience at the show, and the well over 50 conversations I’ve had with manufacturers, dealers, distributors, reps, dealers, and media who both attended and skipped the show, I have some well-developed theories. None of them have much to do with COVID, except for poorly handled health and safety communications by Expo management.

Kimberly Lancaster Caster Communications
Kimberly Lancaster Caster Communications

Theory 1: The ROI wasn’t there even before the cancellations started.

After early bird registration closed, a number leaked. Rumors swirled that there were under 4000 registrants for the show. This was a low number for sure, but given it was the first show in post-pandemic, I wasn’t bothered by it. The exhibiting manufacturers, who had enormous outlays of budgets assigned to the event, were less forgiving. The first two companies to drop from Expo were also rumored to only be softly committed to the event to begin with. With the ROI looking suspect, dropping out became appealing.

Theory 2: It’s a cancellation generation, but give us a reason to believe in you.

The rise in the Delta variant following the 4th of July was a 6-week fuse to the dynamite that imploded Expo. It absolutely sparked the defection, but it could have been stamped out if someone had recognized the flags and reacted in time. People wanted to go to Expo, but everyone had conflicting emotions. They were asking themselves “Is this the right thing to do? Is the event still within my risk tolerance? Can I ask my staff to go? Is there going to be enough value there to justify taking time off work and customer projects, or the expense of travelling and exhibiting?” Emerald failed to provide a clear, convincing “yes” to all these questions. Crisis communications requires quick action. A spokesperson with empathy and solid messaging should be deployed within 24 hours of the signs of trouble. Emerald was blind to what was happening. They didn’t have a good pulse on this industry and its community, and they deeply underestimated how this industry would react if Delta spiked. They were not monitoring dealer forums, social media or external press for reactions, and by the time they did it was much too late and largely half-assed. Communications were tone-deaf, single channel, and self-serving with no strong reassurances that this even could happen if everyone cooperated and worked together. The Expo exodus was our new cancellation society in action.

Theory 3: Emerald Expositions let politics drive policy.

Emerald had a brief window to take control of the situation by taking confident actions to reassure participants. As soon as the first dropout stated they were pulling out of the show due to the rise in the Delta variant, Emerald should have announced universal mask mandates and started both a media blitz and grass roots effort to communicate the full health and safety protocols that would be implemented to help the show go on, including any new measures. Instead, Emerald surprised me and many other observers by drawing a hard line in the sand and keeping an honor system in place, allowing anyone to go unmasked if they were (or claimed to be) vaccinated. Over the course of one week, more than 100 exhibitors withdrew. It’s easy to understand why that happened. Big companies don’t want the HR risk of sending employees into a red zone and to an event that hasn’t issued mandates in alignment with their own COVID company policies. So why did Emerald choose this path?

Fun fact: Emerald mandated their employees always have masks on during Expo. The convention center employees working the event were masked. There was the red-yellow-green system indicating level of comfort with social contact like high fives or hugs (which no one knew about until onsite and was in itself a media talking point). There was social distancing signage all over the convention center, and even more telling, there were the people who exhibited with their masks on or at-the-ready if an attendee walked up with a mask on. People were kind and courteous to each other, and freely shared their vaccination status or cleared with their smaller groups if they could take masks off. In other words, it was civil.

Emerald was anxious of the fallout of a universal mask mandate, understandably afraid they’d be unable to enforce it, and that people would be angry if they tried. They underestimated the degree to which people in the CI industry are willing to meet each other halfway in order to do business. Honestly, if Emerald had issued a mask mandate long before the first cancelation, or reactively within 24 hours of the first news hitting, it might have made all the difference – the show experience probably would have been much the same, except for the addition of scores of exhibitors and a couple thousand attendees. Precautionary mandates may have forced manufacturers to admit they were dropping for ROI not for COVID, and I think that is something no one wants to admit. I think there is a reasonable chance that had a few key exhibitors held on, because Emerald made it possible for them to validate their decision, dealers too would have ventured to Indianapolis, and the entire landscape would have looked different, and the ROI might have been a pleasant surprise.

CEDIA Expo was a lost opportunity to show that business can be done. Due to the smaller nature of the show, and the intimacy of this community, Expo could have been a shining example of a pandemic era trade show. As an industry, we must find a way forward with tradeshows and events, because despite the disappointment, CEDIA Expo did remind us of what we’ve been missing. Expo attendees said they enjoyed what they did get to see. Touch-and-feel and interactive demos, much like a handshake, help get the job done. There were select opportunities to do business. We need show management to inspire confidence that all reasonable precautions have been taken to lower risk and protect the value of the event. As we look forward to Infocomm and CES 2022, I hope that AVIXA and the CTA learn from other’s mistakes. Tradeshows are a big part of business, and I’d hate to see them go away.


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