Exhibition Business Continued Decline In 2020’s Third Quarter

The exhibition industry remained at a standstill in 2020’s third quarter. The Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR) reports that approximately 97 percent of originally scheduled events in the quarter were cancelled. As a result, the CEIR Total Index, a measure of exhibition industry performance, registered a 98.1-percent decline from a year ago. The industry experienced a more moderate year-over-year decline of real (inflation-adjusted) GDP at 2.9 percent, which increased at an annual rate of 33.1 percent from the previous quarter. The latter had been somewhat boosted by continued reopening of businesses, strong residential investment, and online and other consumer goods purchases.

Despite the economic rebound enjoyed in the third quarter, the exhibition industry remained largely stalled given the persistence of COVID-19. A second wave of the virus in July prompted a number of states to pull back on reopening their economies and impose stringent group size limitations, all contributing to a lack of trade-show activity. About three percent of events did take place as mostly small, regional events. The continuance of stringent rules imposed by states and municipalities, as well as ongoing no-travel corporate policies, caused most events scheduled for the third quarter to be cancelled or postponed to 2021. These two reasons are cited as the top two reasons why business-to-business (B2B) exhibition organizers say they were forced to cancel, according to CEIR’s June poll. Other opinion polls tracking consumer sentiment record reluctance to travel, with air travel continuing to remain well below 2019 levels.

Excluding the cancelled events during the third quarter, the total index dropped by 36.1 percent. All exhibition metrics posted sharp year-over-year declines. Attendees suffered the largest fall of 57.6 percent and exhibitors decreased 29.2 percent, whereas net square feet (NSF) tumbled 26.3 percent. Real revenues declined 24.6 percent from a year ago.

The U.S. economy has been growing since May. With a sharp rebound in the third quarter, the real GDP was only 3.5 percent below its peak in the fourth quarter of 2019. Recent monthly economic indicators point to continued moderate growth in the fourth quarter, though newly imposed restrictions in some states will restrain recovery around the turn of the year. As a result of Congress failing to quickly pass a Phase 4 rescue plan combined with a relatively high rate of new COVID-19 cases, economic growth in the first quarter of 2021 is likely to slow significantly. Nonetheless, CEIR expects economic growth will accelerate again in the second quarter as more people are vaccinated and the impact of the Phase 4 rescue programs start to kick in. CEIR expects real GDP to surpass its previous peak in the third quarter of 2021.

“The strong underlying macroeconomic factors should lay a firm foundation of support to the B2B exhibition industry when state and local governments ease restrictions on group gatherings during the second half of 2021,” says CEIR Economist Allen Shaw, Ph.D., chief economist for Global Economic Consulting Associates, Inc.

“The exhibition industry is transforming and innovating itself with a rise in virtual or hybrid events to fill the void while physical events are paused,” adds CEIR CEO Cathy Breden, CMP, CAE, CEM. “With a full recovery in the economy and a majority of the population vaccinated, the recovery of B2B exhibitions should take hold in 2022.”

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