PRINTING United 2021’s Cancellation Showcases the Uncertain Reality of In-Person Tradeshows
Exhibitors and presenters must continue to rely on digital
On August 31, with less than 40 days to go until the event began, the PRINTING United Alliance announced it was cancelling its in-person tradeshow, PRINTING United. The event was slated to be held October 6-8 in Orlando, Florida, at the Orange County Convention Center. Unfortunately, it is not hard to understand why the show has been cancelled. It is difficult to turn on the news these days without hearing about growing COVID-19 rates of infection in certain states, or the growing virulence of delta and lambda variants.
The cancellation of PRINTING United’s in-person event marks a continued era of frustration for print vendors, manufacturers, and service providers looking to return to the normal onsite tradeshows. Many may be wondering if the venue had chosen somewhere with a higher vaccination rate in the US, could the event have continued?
Well, yes and no. The risk for severe COVID-19 transmission is certainly lower in some states, but there are other factors, as well. By their very nature, in-person tradeshows are a high-risk activity under the current pandemic conditions no matter where you go. Collecting so many bodies into an enclosed space has proven to be dicey, regardless of the reason. Certain events took precautions earlier this year, including checking attendees’ temperatures as well as other preventative measures – but safety was still not guaranteed. Even in vaccinated areas, the potential for an outbreak is present (although less severe).
The New (and Continuing) Reality of Virtual Events
With the delta variant raging and new variants on the horizon, it is time to accept a difficult truth: the likelihood of large scale in-person tradeshows, conventions, and expos returning to normal is slim—at least in 2021. Digital and online events will continue to pick up the slack. This was a scramble in 2020, but one that’s been met with mixed results.
According to data gathered by AnyRoad, over 90% of respondents said that their 2020 virtual events were successful. The same survey found that, despite hope for a vaccine and the end of the pandemic, 85% expected online events to stay and nearly 60% grew their budget for online events in 2021. That said, challenges remain. Engagement was listed as a main obstacle, with one respondent stating “Online events can be very one way—like a broadcast with little opportunity for attendees to participate…” As such, organizations are working on developing methods to make their online tradeshows and events more interactive. These include relatively easy measures, such as building in Q&A sessions, to initiatives that require a bit of programming know-how, such as attendee polling. More than half of online events use Zoom (50.3%), which is a fine program even if it is somewhat limited. By investing in software that allows for more interactivity and attendee engagement, organizations can put themselves ahead of the competition.
It is no exaggeration to say that there are many online events. The barrier to entry is far lower than an in-person event, create a landscape even more crowded than the one that came before it. The new premier industry online tradeshows and conventions may well be those that go above and beyond, thinking of unique ways to use the digital platform to foster engagement and feedback.
Print’s Place in an Online Tradeshow Ecosystem
Many in the print industry feel especially frustrated by the continued disruption of in-person tradeshows like PRINTING United. Print is (by nature) a physical product and one that oftentimes must be touched to be fully appreciated. That said, even this tactile industry can adapt to an online landscape—albeit with more challenges.
For starters, print samples can be put into people’s hands anywhere via mail. This can be cost-intensive and should not be done lightly but can still be effective. Vendors and exhibitors should encourage such new sampling mechanics in smaller, targeted bursts. Let the online user request and pay for the sample, but think about ways to make that sample more appealing to justify the effort.
Additionally, newer technologies like virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) offer ways to view print hardware like never before. Certain companies were already using these tools to enhance their in-person tradeshow presence. A key advantage is that the simulation can be created anywhere--meaning a production owner or office manager could watch the equipment function in its intended space before committing to a purchase. But a major barrier here is that not many people have AR or VR hardware and would need to make the investment before they could participate in the medium. That said, most headsets would be relatively small investments at less than $1,000.
PRINTING United’s in-person cancellation is a grim reminder that just because we want the COVID-19 pandemic to end, doesn’t mean it will anytime soon. Given the uneven global vaccine distribution, the thoughtless politicization of the disease within the United States, and the constantly evolving nature of the virus—we’ll likely need to cope with COVID-19 much longer than we’d like.
It is not enough to just hope life will return to a pre-pandemic normal and to make plans only for that rosy future; the print industry must make investments into the online event space, ensuring that they can safely and effectively sell their product regardless of global pandemic conditions.
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