SMPS Boston

Much Hype and Uncertainty About the Future of Trade Conferences

This article originally appeared on SMPS Boston’s website.

by Ken Lambert

As marketing and business development professionals within the AEC industry, it has long been a key portion of our efforts and job descriptions to attend/sponsor/present at one or more trade/industry conferences every year.  Some enjoy this, and some do not, but that topic is not the point of this article.

The fact is, the COVID-19 epidemic has thrown a nasty curveball to the national convention/conference industry at-large. The year 2020 saw most medium-large conferences being postponed and then outright cancelled. Up until about April of this year, conferences were just as non-existent, but things are now changing.

And not a moment too soon for this $100 billion industry in the United States.  The conference/convention planning and management industry employs almost 89,000 people nationally; that is not an insignificant number. Of course, we know that the City of Las Vegas, and even Nevada as a whole, has in some ways been built upon the convention industry and culture.

Boston has had very strict restrictions in place due to COVID-19, and now they are finally seeing their end days. At the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center (BCEC), there are five events scheduled in June, seven in August, and 17 in September.  In the Greater Boston economy, conventions are big business and an important job opportunity for many in our neighborhoods.

In our AEC industry in particular, conventions are for the most part on their way back, and many have already been scheduled with deposits paid. In fact, just a couple weeks ago a good friend of mine attended a large national civil engineering convention held in Texas.

A quick glimpse of what is on the horizon:

World of Concrete                                                     June 7-10

SMPS (A/E/Connections)                                       July 15 & July 22

SMPS (Build Business) – hybrid                           Aug. 4-6

Journal of Light Construction LIVE                     Aug. 11-14

Construction Specifications Institute                   Sept. 22-24

CoreNET Global                                                        Nov. 7-9

AIA National Conference                                        Not applicable/ an all-digital event

The convention centers will, and must, schedule and manage as many large industry gatherings as possible to attempt to regain profitability.  Some may need to reduce their 2019-level vendor fees and conference sponsor fees in order to help fully bring attendance/traffic back to pre-COVID levels. As is the case with everything, it will come down to supply and demand.

Anecdotally, I have read and heard from many companies and professionals that they are reassessing their time and financial commitment to large/national trade shows and conventions. They survived 2020 without physically attending or sponsoring said conferences, all while saving a considerable amount of money in the process. This fact is a headwind to the conference/convention industry in reclaiming its 2019-era status.

But a headwind or hurdle does not equate to the overnight vanishing of a $100 billion industry. In recent years, we’ve liked to think that changes/upgrades/updates are instantaneous, but that is generally not the case.

In 1908, Ford Motor Company introduced the Model T gasoline-powered vehicle, and its popularity grew significantly the year after.  However, it took over 15 years for the automobile industry to fully supplant the horse-and-carriage as a common mode of transportation.

Exactly where the convention industry will be in 5-7 years is anyone’s guess. It is conceivable that they will see how these next 2-3 years go financially, and perhaps they will need to adapt their facilities and business model to a new Post-COVID paradigm. Just like many other questions following the pandemic, only time will tell.

Ken Lambert is a director of industry development and technical services at the International Masonry Institute.