The U.S. got off to a rough start this year, with Covid cases rising, vaccines rolling out more slowly than expected, and the Jan. 6 uprising at the Capitol. Will these developments hamper our recovery timeline? When, really, will large meetings and events resume? That's one of several timely questions I asked David DuBois, president and CEO of the International Association of Exhibitions and Events, this week. Here's what he had to say.
Have your expectations for our industry's recovery changed since Jan. 1?
The easy answer is yes. First of all, it's imperative that the vaccines continue to come off the shelves and get into people's arms. I'm not a scientist, but I'm listening to the scientists, and the projections that myself and David Audrain of the Society of Independent Show Organizers have for the exhibition industry are science-based. If we could get a much higher number of vaccines into peoples' arms by late June, we're going to see people more willing to get on airplanes and go to an exhibition or meeting.
David Dubois discusses Biden's spending package and what it means for meetings.
The scientific facts are important, but we're also dealing with fear.
Yes, that's part of it. The vaccines are going to build confidence, along with the wonderful work that hotels, airlines and convention centers are all doing. Our industry has done a great job with safety and health protocols. Basically, we're ready from a safety and security and health standpoint, but attendees and exhibitors are not ready. Their companies are not releasing them for travel yet.
How confident are you about traveling now, before you've been vaccinated?
I'll give you an example: The event that Northstar did with Mohegan Sun was outstanding. I felt safe flying there. I felt state safe staying in the resort, I felt safe in the way you guys set the whole thing up. It was fabulous. I came home and I told my wife, "I don't think I've felt safer, even going out to the 7/11 in our neighborhood."
How are convention centers doing without conventions?
Exhibitions and meetings are slowly happening. Business is ramping up in a positive way. Orlando just had the global Surf Expo. Florida's very aggressive, their Governor's very aggressive. One of the first big trade shows outside of Florida will be the World of Concrete, scheduled for June at the new, expanded Las Vegas Convention Center. So, fingers crossed that will happen, even if it's 50 percent of its normal capacity. [The 2019 event had 60,511 attendees.]
In most states, though, large gatherings are still prohibited. When will we really be back to business?
It's going to be kind of like skiing uphill. Once you get to the top of the hill, maybe by early fall, we're going to see a lot of pent-up demand. My best guess is that by early- to mid-fall, if we can get control of these spikes, we will see sunshine.
I always use this analogy: Imagine you're driving through a snowstorm and all of a sudden it's getting brighter on the horizon. The next thing you know, you see sun, and you're thrilled, but you're still scared to drive on the snow and ice that's on the road. That's the deal. Sunshine is in the future. We have a lot of snow and ice on the highways that we're still going to have to drive on.
Does the uprising in Washington have any bearing on our industry's recovery, in your opinion?
Well, as disappointed and upset as everyone is — well, 95 percent of the world is — this will settle down. We've got to get through the next 10 days. It will settle down and our democracy will prevail. Are there crazies that are out there? Yes, and I say crazies because that's what they are. I'm all about the right and the left and the center having the freedom to protest, but do not, DO NOT, cause disruption and injuries and property damage.
Are you worried about further incidents like the one at the Capitol?
I'm more afraid of stupid things that will cause additional racial unrest than I am about the "Trumpsters." That will settle down, because our governments and our states and our cities are going to arrest 400 or 500 people. Sure, those people will get out of jail, and they'll be ready to go at it again, but I'm am more concerned about additional racial unrest that I am about more political unrest.
Do you expect any convention centers to shut down, essentially, because they've been without business for so long?
Most convention centers have operational deficits that are financially supported by room tax, which is split between convention centers and convention and visitor bureaus. I don't think convention centers are going to go out of business. They have certainly shut down or closed temporarily, or they've gone down to skeleton staff just to have security and power. They have furloughed lots and lots of employees. But as our business starts to come back this summer and into the fall, they'll start bringing people back. Let's say you've got a big show like World of Concrete in June; you've got to have people back, probably starting next month.
Will it be difficult to bring people back?
It might be. I have a friend who is a general services contractor, and he says they are going to start slowly bringing people back and ramping up again. But my friend also said to me, 'Dave, we are calling people and they've found other jobs.' They were laid off back in March or April, and they're now working somewhere else, maybe for Amazon or Costco. They had to put food in their family's mouths, pay their rent and their mortgage and their car payments.
But convention centers will start ramping back up, because most of them have been subsidized by the room tax, which is starting to grow back. And I would imagine their debt was put on hold until they can start paying it off again.
Do you think some of the larger companies that support meetings – like contractors and big third parties — will go out of business?
Well, the good news is that the latest relief package that was passed a couple of weeks ago is going to help, but it's only going to help for a couple of more months. We're already talking to the Biden administration — myself and David Audrain representing Go Live Together, along with our lobbying firm. We've had several conversations with the Biden transition team, educating them about how important exhibitions and business events are. [For his reaction to Biden's newly proposed relief package, see the video interview with DuBois above.]
Do you think that will happen soon?
It may take him a couple of months, but we need relief through June. I think once we get to June — it's kind of like the snowstorm analogy — we're going to see the sunshine. We're going to have 40 to 50 percent of our world vaccinated by June or July, God willing. So, companies like Maritz and Freeman and the hotel companies can ski downhill again, and slowly start to bring people back as the volume of their business increases. And they will have revenues that allow them to a be profitable again.
So, for now, we have to drive through the snow, right?
We do. I've used that analogy many times and gotten positive feedback, but of course people in Florida will say, 'I've never driven in snow.' So I tell them to think about a hurricane that comes in and just devastates everything. The next day, you wake up and the sun is shining, but the buildings all around you are blown away. You're OK though, and we will rebuild.