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‘I don’t think government understands events’, says Carina Bauer

“Disappointment, not surprise, that was the reaction from the industry.” IMEX Group CEO Carina Bauer is explaining how the cancellation of IMEX America came about – and how it felt when the news broke.

“For us as a team, we wanted to see what the situation looked like during April and May and into June”, she says. “We had said we would make a decision three months out, that gave us a bit of time to see how lockdown went.

“There were a few key things that led to the decision. The amount of uncertainty was one. If we were to put on a show, our exhibitors would expect us to deliver a solid, high quality, hosted buyer programme. There were many intermediaries not in a position to work with us to bring in buyers. It’s a massive partnership programme, and it’s precarious right now. We asked, can we get the buyers there, and we weren’t sure about that.”

Range of uncertainty

Las Vegas currently has a ban on large events. For a trade show that attracts between 10,000 and 14,000 people, with a third of participants coming from outside North America, there were too many unknowns.

“In Las Vegas you can currently only have events of up to 50 people”, says Bauer. “And at the moment, you can’t fly in from anywhere. We would hope that would be lifted, but that range of uncertainty was too much. What is the case today may not be the case tomorrow – and you can’t run a show not knowing. You couldn’t expect people to attend.

“That’s what all of us face in terms of events, that lack of knowledge and understanding from government and policy makers. If the governor of Nevada said it was ok in September, that doesn’t mean you can pull off a trade show two weeks later.”

With IMEX’s shows taking place in two different countries, Germany and the US, and being based in the UK, Bauer has seen first hand the differences between the three countries in terms of their response to the virus.

“They are very different,” she says. “We’re happy to be in Germany next May. In terms of their response at the highest level they’ve so far been the best country. They were one of the first to separate trade shows and events from mass gatherings, they have a true understanding of organised business events.

Need for clarity

“They seem to have appreciated the need for clarity a few months out to start the planning process. The German economy is very dependent on business events, it’s the sixth largest sector.

“All economies are dependent on business events. But in the UK, does the government understand that the sector provides £70 billion to the economy? I’m not sure they do.

“In Germany, the federal government has some co-ordination. In the US it’s more partisan, it depends on whether it’s a red or a blue state, it’s a very different response. A more co-ordinated response would help.

“In the US with a very small local event you can plan it with what’s happening in that state. But then there’s the question of whether people from outside the state can attend it.

“It shows the interdependency we all have. If you’re running a large event with a broad gathering of people from outside the immediate area, you’re dependent on so many things; health and safety, travel, people’s confidence to travel…”

Virtual offering

In response to the cancellation of IMEX Frankfurt, IMEX Group launched a virtual learning and networking experience, PlanetIMEX, which took place over the show’s dates. And the virtual offering will be returning around the Las Vegas show, Bauer confirms.

“We’re going to do PlanetIMEX again”, she says. “We haven’t decided whether it’s on the exact dates, we’re just reviewing that at the moment. You don’t have to be tied to those dates. We’ll definitely do it again though, we’re looking at what worked last time, what we might repeat, what we’re excited about.

“In May it was an incredible effort to turn it around in six weeks and it went really well, we were really pleased with it. We wanted to create a gift for the industry. It was such a shock to cancel Frankfurt, it was really devastating. We had so many amazing messages of support, we said, “let’s do something!”. We wanted to create something fun and joyful.

“We had 20,000 unique views, 6,000 for EduMonday. In terms of actual attendance we had 12,500. There were 1,500 conversations, appointments that took place. We learned a lot from a variety of experiences we offered and we had amazing feedback. We had people joining in the middle of the night from where they were, it was really special. They got high quality content. Now we want to figure out what we can do that’s new and different.”

Long term potential

While this year’s IMEX offering will be entirely online, next year will see a return to the live arena with IMEX Frankfurt on 25-27 May 2021. So what place will the new virtual offering have when the live event returns?

“The big question is how do live and virtual live together”, says Bauer. “With PlanetIMEX we think there is potential for it longer term but we haven’t worked out how it all sits together. What that looks like we’re not 100 per cent.

“You can’t replace the live experience, I don’t think we would seek to. The question is if you can enhance it in any way, that’s where we’ll put our energy. You can do things online and enhance and improve and extend. That interaction is the key question, is that really possible? I don’t think you can really replace being in the same room as someone, the focus is different.

“Nothing quite makes up for human interaction. It’s hard to develop good relationships without meeting people. Business is still predicated on personal relationships. In the short term there will be more virtual events because of cost reductions, but you can’t get the same engagement without a live event.”

Psychological effects

And as for the return of live events? Well, it could happen quicker than most people think, says Bauer.

“Smaller, local events will happen first”, she says. “When we’re allowed to meet in large gatherings I think they’ll come back pretty fast. In Asia, that’s what happened. The events came back instantly. I think there’s demand. If you take trade shows, we’re business generators for the sectors we serve. For example, I saw a statistic that 50 per cent of UK caravan sales take place at two events. Everything’s impacted when events can’t take place.

“It’s about that confidence. We can’t underestimate the psychological effects of lockdown. It needs to be a steady process for people to feel comfortable.”