Expert Advice from Epitome's Production Safety & Risk Management Specialists


Examining the Business Expo, Trade Show, & Convention Industry’s Response to COVID-19

The business Expo, Trade Show, and Convention (ETSC) industry lost over $16 billion in just the first few months of 2020. It is not projected to fully rebound to pre-pandemic levels until well after 2024. That long recovery effort began with the return of events and shows last year. As COMIC-CON 2022 kicks of this week in Sand Diego, let’s take a look at this giant industry from a COVID-19 safety perspective.

This return of conventions, trade shows, and expos has happened during a confusing safety environment in the United States. Since the beginning of the pandemic, each state shouldered the responsibility of writing and enforcing pandemic safety protocols. That responsibility shifted to individuals in 2022 when the CDC stopped issuing national guidelines.

It is now incumbent on each person to check the COVID status in their community and then follow (or not) the recommended safety precautions. This has led many to simply give up and hope for the best, despite new variants spiking case numbers across the country and teasing the return of mask mandates.

This article is part of an ongoing series that explores the realm of large-scale events with an eye towards COVID-19 safety. In this third installment of “The Price of Admission,” we examine the state of COVID-19 within the ETSC industry.

To do this, we have divided this article into four parts:

  • The size of the industry
  • COVID-19 safety issues
  • Pandemic safety strategies
  • The bottom line

Before we look at the safety issues inherent to the industry and how they can be mitigated, lets take a moment to understand just how large an industry this is.   

The Size of The Industry

Some call it the convention industry, others the business expo industry, and still others the trade show industry. Whatever you call it, let’s define it. In this article, we are talking about B2B, B2C, conventions, conferences, and congresses. This large industry attracts some 81 million people and employs over 6.5 million people in the United States alone. This industry generates over $400 billion of the United States’ GDP.

Every major metropolitan area in the country has at least one convention center. ETSCs make up a significant portion of the business travel industry, which itself lost nearly $500 billion dollars in 2020. Whole economic ecosystems—hotels, restaurants, rental car companies, concierge services—have sprung up to cater to the ETSC industry. 

COVID-19 hit all of these related industries hard. The ETSC industry saw nearly an 80% reduction in revenue. The business travel industry was gutted too.

In response to pandemic travel restrictions, the ETSC industry went virtual in 2020. While this transition did not translate to profitability, the switch to digital allowed the industry to remain relevant and active.

This change created new ecosystems of file-sharing software, video conferencing platforms, virtual event spaces, digital mixers, and a host of other options to help would-be business travelers feel like the valued contributors to the events that they have always been.

Returning to physical events is not going to be easy. Pandemic risk factors are simply part of the foundation of this industry. Let’s take a look at some of them.

COVID-19 Safety Issues

While the full list of safety issues associated with the expo, convention, and tradeshow industry would be quite long, we want to highlight a few:

  • Location: There is no more dangerous place to be during this pandemic than indoors surrounded by a crowd of people. The ETSC industry is designed to take place in exactly those types of locations.
  • Spacing: The entire point of these events is to meet people, connect with business partners, interact with products, foster friendships – the whole array of interpersonal interactions. This makes it a perfect environment for COVID-19 to spread. 
  • Structure: Most of these events are structured to allow attendees to come and go as they please. This creates an added safety issue. Despite programmers’ best efforts to create a safe convention environment, they cannot control the situation in their host city.

These events take place in a dangerous setting. Their very purpose is connection and contact, and the structure subjects everyone to an uncertain level of exposure. So we are looking at one of the riskier businesses to be in right now. 

Despite these inherent risks, the ETSC industry is coming back. So let’s look at how they might be able mitigate some of those risks and make the industry safer for all those involved.

Pandemic Safety Strategies

Three major risk categories must be addressed; location, safe spacing, and event structure. So let’s look at how we can make each one safer.

A Safer Location

There are several ways to make ETSCs safer from a location perspective. Here are a few recommendations:

  • Be Outdoors If Possible: By moving the event to a fairgrounds or a pavilion, we can dramatically increase safety. Letting fresh air flow decreases the likelihood of spreading the virus. If the entire event can’t be held outside, consider holding a portion of the event outdoors. Every little bit of fresh air will help.
  • Upgrade The Ventilation Systems: The WHO recommends that HVAC systems be improved to help stop the spread of the virus. Make sure venues have upgraded before scheduling events.
  • Go Hybrid: This strategy will appear in each of the sections to follow as well. By relying on a hybrid convention we can, in essence, infinitely increase the size of our venue by allowing people to attend from anywhere in the world.

These three steps, taken separately or in concert with one another, will make any event a safer event. To further increase safety, however, we must look more closely at how to alleviate congestion.

Safer Spacing

50% of ETSCs have over 1,000 attendees, and 16% have over 10,000. We must allow for proper social distancing and sanitation if we are to create a safer convention. But we can’t afford to sacrifice the connections fostered at these events. Here are some suggestions on how to do just that:

  • Increase Distance Between Booths: The pre-pandemic goal of many of these conventions and expos has been to pack in as many booths as the venue will fit. This cannot be the goal moving forward. We must increase the spacing between booths to eliminate congestion areas and traffic choke points.
  • Control the Flow of Traffic: To help eliminate those choke points, we should design the venue to include one-way traffic flow. Consider placing arrows on the floors or hanging signs from the ceilings to make sure that attendees and exhibitors travel in the same direction.
  • Place Sanitation Stations Throughout the Venue: So long as you don’t impede traffic flow, you can’t have too many sanitation stations. Hand washing sinks, hand sanitizer, replacement masks, and antibacterial wipes, are just a few examples of the things to have in these sanitation stations.
  • Do Not Overbook: Event organizers should do everything they can to avoid the situation that “Stranger Things” newest breakout star, Joseph Quinn, faced at Comic-Con London 2022. His meet and greet was oversold and the crowds and congestion got out of hand. Establish safe attendance numbers (more on that in a moment) and stick to them.
  • Mandate Masks: One of the easiest and most effective ways to decrease the spread of the virus is to mask up. To hold a large event like an expo or a trade show, we must mandate masks for exhibitors, attendees, and support staff.
  • From Passes to Tickets: Instead of simply issuing event passes, consider going a step further and issuing tickets that are only good for a specific time period. For instance, you could divide the event each day into AM and PM groups. Each group would have a ticket that allows members to enter only during designated time periods. A ticketing strategy would allow for a less congested venue.
  • Go Hybrid: By allowing people to attend and to exhibit remotely, events can significantly decrease the crush of bodies at their venues.

A Safer Structure

People travel from all over the world to attend ETSCs. To increase safety, events must be structured differently. Here are a few suggestions on how to structure ETSCs to maximize safety:

  • Advanced Testing: In a perfect world, everyone would be vaccinated, but this is not a perfect world. At a minimum, all attendees and exhibitors should be mailed a PCR test before the start of the convention with enough time for the results to be clear.
  • On-Site Testing: Though imperfect, rapid testing on-site each day can help catch an infected person before they enter the venue.
  • Create a Bubble: If possible, contract with hotels and restaurants connected to the event venue and work with them to create a bubble that the event can take place within. By controlling where people stay and eat while attending the convention, we can mitigate their potential exposure.
  • Control Re-entry: Short of a bubble, consider controlling or eliminating reentry. By preventing attendees from coming and going as they please, we can decrease their exposure to the environment outside the venue. This will help to further control the environment inside as well.
  • Go Hybrid: With proper advanced planning, conventions can be structured to optimize both the in-person and the virtual experience.

The Bottom Line

One thing is certain in this industry right now: Hybrid is here to stay. To maximize the benefits of the hybrid model, virtual attendees must remain as important as in-person ones. A robust hybrid experience will allow for people—even those attending in person—to take advantage of the virtual options.

Running an ETSC has always been a monumental task that required significant advanced planning. COVID-19 has made it even more difficult.

By focusing on making our venues safer, controlling the spacing and flow of our events, relying on readily available sanitation, mandating masks, creating bubbles, and building a robust hybrid experience, the ETSC industry can appreciably increase safety upon their return.

Brian Smolensky is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and a former Air Force Full Spectrum Threat Response Officer with over 15 years of experience in film and television production.

DISCLAIMER: This information should not be considered comprehensive and is not a substitute for hiring risk management professionals and personnel trained in COVID-19-specific procedures. Please consult with your insurance company, your investors, all applicable union reps, and health and safety professionals before participating in ETSC activities during a pandemic.

UPDATE: This article was updated on 7/20/22