The Trade Show Must Go On

Brian Scott Lipton

For professionals in many industries, from fashion to event planning to technology, participating in a trade show is more than a mere annual ritual -- it is a necessary tool for achieving maximum exposure and optimizing success in business. Vendors can launch new products to large audiences, often resulting in major increases in sales; attendees can finally get “up close and personal” looks at innovations in their markets, and everyone gets the chance to meet up with old friends or network with new acquaintances.

These are just some of the reasons why, despite the so-called digital revolution, the global B2B trade show market was valued in 2019 at $34.4 billion, according to – with the U.S. market alone worth $15.6 billion. Then the Covid-19 pandemic hit the U.S. in March 2020 and kept most people home for well over a year, leading to the cancellation of almost every in-person show along with an enormous drop in revenue for the hospitality industries in large cities.

According to Vijay Dandapani, President and CEO of the Hotel Association of New York City, hotel occupancy for 2020 was 34% compared 89% for 2019. This year (2021), it is trending at around 45% and likely will remain around that given the lack of international travel (not started yet as no date has been set by the White House) as well as the absence of conventions, very few conferences and business travel. More importantly, revenues are down 60% compared to 2019 on a rolling 12-month basis (for the period ending September 2021). And the total workforce in the industry was 55,000 while about 20,000 are currently being employed.

“The vast majority of our industry lost 90 percent of its trade show business,” notes Laura Palker, the President and CEO of the National Trade Show Alliance, which was formed in the early days of the pandemic to help its members navigate this uncertain new terrain. “And while we’re just beginning to recover, we know there is still a bumpy road ahead of us.”

Indeed, even 18 months after Covid first shut down the U.S., it would be foolish to say everything (or anything) has returned to normal. Unfortunately, America has not even come close to reaching so-called “herd immunity,” with only 56 percent of the total U.S. population now being fully vaccinated, according to Our World of Data, leading to caution on the part or both organizers and attendees. Further, the highly contagious Delta variant of COVID has led to some shows that had been put back on the calendar being cancelled because of “safety concerns,” such as the National Association of Broadcasters’ October show in Las Vegas.


Perhaps no group was more anxious to return to the trade show floor than the members of fashion industry – and they did so in droves this summer at such high-profile shows as Project Las Vegas, which saw an increased number of new retailers and new brands as compared to 2019, according to Kelly Helfman, commercial president of Informa Markets Fashion (which runs the show.)

Similarly, the summer 2021 Dallas Men’s Show turned out to be the largest in the show’s history. It featured more than 700 brands, including 143 new exhibitors, and attracted buyers from 40 states – a 200 percent increase in attendance over 2019 by retailers.

Another major men’s fashion show, the Chicago Collective, was an equally impressive industry success story. “I can tell you that we had the best show in my 24 years of doing this,” said Bruce Schedler, vice-president of the Chicago Collective & Stylemax Trade Show. “It was obvious to us that both buyers and sellers still place great value in a person-to-person seasonal marketplace. This kind of trade show is so much more immersive and insightful than the digital presentations we had to do during Covid.”


As for 2022, one can expect the trade show industry to revive in a big way, as such major events as TexWorld, the National Retail Federation’s Big Show, and CES (the world’s most influential technology trade show) are all on track for next year.

“Hundreds of executives have literally told us how much they need CES to meet new and existing customers, find partners, reach media and discover innovation,” says Gary Shapiro, President of CES. “Within the first day of registration, almost 1,100 companies have committed to exhibiting with us in Las Vegas. And from what we can tell, we’re expecting substantial growth in many industries, including automotive and digital healthcare.” The growth in attendance by such businesses as digital healthcare reflect market changes that have occurred not just since COVID but because of it, and underscore the importance of industries having the opportunity to strut their stuff.

“I think we all realize that getting together live is critical not just to our industry, but for a global economic recovery,” says Palker. “Virtually, we tend to only connect with who we know. But when we’re in person, we meet people we don’t know. And that can lead to the next great connection – or even the next great invention.”