Business professionals go to trade shows and conventions to meet others in their industry, share thoughts and ideas, set up meetings and trade stories, some true and some not so true.
When in 2020 nearly all conferences were moved online as a precaution against the COVID-19 pandemic, many organizers focused on presenting high-quality content attendees could use. They intended to make the event as rewarding as possible despite the lack of in-person interactions. Nevertheless, these virtual events were found to be an inferior option.
The reason is simple. Trade shows and conventions are made for people to meet other people. While witnessing the newest gadgets on display is important, very often, touring the host city and mingling with big-name presenters are often of more interest to attendees than the substance of the meeting.
For social scientists, this isn’t surprising. In the 2017 paper “The Biology of Socialization,” the researchers write, “Our personal and professional achievements are largely motivated by the approval and recognition of others.” This type of interaction most frequently happens at trade shows, when we meet with our peers who can appreciate those efforts.
Now, as we are inching out of this pandemic, and more people in North America are vaccinated, we can expect trade shows and conventions to be held in person again. Although they may initially not be as widely attended as in years past, and will likely have stipulations such as requiring mask wearing of all exhibitors and attendees, social distancing and even the potential for “vaccine passports,” they will be back — and welcomed back by most industry sectors.
But, we must remember, the world has changed since the pandemic began. We are in a more volatile and unstable world, and not just on the public health front.
Unemployment in many parts of the world, including North America, is much higher today than it was in 2019. Supply chains have fragmented, and in some areas of the world, food prices are rising. Vaccination rates and the impact of the pandemic can also vary significantly. In the U.S., political and racial tension is all too often seething under the surface.
This means that, as trade shows and conventions begin to open, show hosts, event planners, convention facility administrators and others involved in these events must place people, and facility security, higher on their list. Protecting the health and safety of exhibitors and attendees is paramount in 2021, and will likely remain a greater concern going forward than in the past.
Examining a Post-COVID Trade show
Imagine a trade show is being organized for the nuts-and-bolts industry. We are expecting 50,000 visitors to attend the show, which will be held this year in Toledo, Ohio, at the SeaGate Convention Center.
Just as it would be at any convention facility today, ensuring the health and safety of those in the SeaGate is of the highest priority. To that end, and with the aid of a risk assessment firm, our event managers and facility administrators have compiled a list of actions to take before and during the show:
- Risk assessment of the entire facility. Review all safety procedures in place at SeaGate Convention Center, survey the SeaGate building and parking lot, inspect for ingress and egress issues that could negatively impact handling an emergency and related risks. Use drones to detect areas where unsavory characters could hide or enter the building unseen. This would also determine building vulnerabilities and other site-specific risk issues.
- Guards and cameras. Determine whether security guards (or additional guards) should be hired and stationed in the above areas. Research local security firms, if needed, to supply extra security. As to cameras, the risk management firm advised convention planners that cameras are very good at memorializing occurrences. However, they have limited preventative measures when it comes to security and reducing risk.
- Enhanced emergency communication. Ensure that fast and efficient communication with all major stakeholders, as well as emergency personnel such as police, fire and ambulance services are in place. Collect and disseminate contact information for organizers, presenters, volunteers, convention center personnel and emergency personnel. Ensure all stakeholders are aware of potential risks and share the exact same information. Upgrade communication technology as needed and coordinate with SeaGate to practice communication protocols with all team members. Hold trainings with volunteers and personnel so that everyone knows what to do and who to contact in case of an emergency.
- Cybersecurity. Work with SeaGate personnel to test internet function and security. Change and protect passwords to ensure all private information is kept confidential. Ensure all livestreamed events and downloads from the convention website are secured.
- Public health and safety. Temperature check everyone — attendees, stakeholders, presenters, volunteers, and vendors entering the facility each day and throughout the day. Install hand sanitizer stations throughout the facility. Employ posters and other messaging to encourage all occupants to wash their hands frequently and use the provided hand sanitizer. Post capacity limits on presentation room doors and in the catalog. To ease overcrowding, livestream sessions and make them available for download later.
- Cleaning. Work with SeaGate to assess current cleaning programs to ensure they provide effective cleaning and disinfecting. Suggest cleaning technologies that are most effective at disinfecting large facilities. Inform exhibitors that they will need to do their part to keep their exhibit areas cleaned and disinfected. Coordinate with major cleaning manufacturers to provide cleaning solutions and disinfectants, and teach exhibitors how to use their products properly. Provide sponsorship opportunities to the manufacturers in return for the products.
We have covered many of the health and security changes now needed to ensure trade shows are safe and healthy. But there is one final step we have not discussed: what to do with this information.
In short, do not keep the implemented security measures confidential. Rather, publicize the steps being taken to protect the health and safety of all those using the convention facility. This serves as an additional deterrent to anyone who may be planning to do harm. It will also provide assurance to attendees that you have made their safety a priority. Thoughtful measures like these will help the convention industry get back on its feet again.
What About Social Media?
In an emergency, the social media platforms used by the conference should also be used to disseminate accurate and consistent updates. Further, if emergency personnel have been called to the scene, this information must be coordinated with these professionals. Be aware that in some cases, the amount of information police, fire and other emergency professionals want released to the public may be limited, at least initially.
Johnathan Tal is CEO of TAL Global. Based in Silicon Valley, TAL Global is a leading risk management, security consulting and investigative agency serving airports, and other clients, all over the world. He can be reached through his company website at talglobal.com.
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Chief Executive Officer