Mike Blackman #ISE20Years interview - part 8: ISE and the pandemic

Mike Blackman #ISE20Years interview - part 8: ISE and the pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the most serious disruptions to work and domestic life for decades. Integrated Systems Events Managing Director Mike Blackman talks about how ISE pivoted to online and local events, and what the organisation learned from them. 

ISE's local event in London, June 2021The first COVID-19 lockdown started just after ISE 2020, the last year in Amsterdam. During the pandemic, some of ISE's activities pivoted online and the organisation held two small shows in 2021 in Barcelona and London. What did you learn from these virtual and real-life events?

So, like every other organiser, we tried to keep our business running and keep the connection to our customers. Because physical events were not possible, online seemed like the only option and there were thousands of solutions being offered around virtual shows. And we tried this. Our experience was that whilst virtual events can be satisfying for attendees, attendees are not really prepared to pay a lot of money to participate in the virtual events.

And the exhibitors, who are the ones who are paying, weren't getting the return on investment. They were not getting the interaction with the attendees that they'd like to have, and we couldn't find a solution that encouraged attendees to interact more with exhibitors.

The other thing we learned as well is that when someone comes to a trade show, they'll spend the whole day, and if we're lucky, they'll spend all four days. The average attendance at ISE is about 2.5 days.

Our experience on the virtual events, and we're hearing this from organisers in every sector, is that people are not willing to spend more than a couple of hours online, and mostly even if they're listening, they're multitasking – they might be on the phone, they might be doing an email at the same time, etcetera. They're not fully focused on the online event.

And we realised that it's not something we could make a business out of, being online. Our exhibitors supported us, they tried it, but again, many couldn't get the ROI they would like to have seen from an online event. And as a result we've seen the bounceback of in-person events in every single industry.

Did you have any takeaways from the small live shows that we did in Barcelona and London?

We had a lot of exhibitors come to us and ask if we could organise local events. The original idea was to start in Barcelona, where there were the least restrictions, and then move everything by truck to Munich, run an one-day event in Munich; and then on to Amsterdam for a one-day event at the RAI; and then on to London and do a one-day event there.

"We've seen the bounceback in every single industry for trade shows"

We had a very strong presence in Barcelona, both exhibitors and attendees, and good satisfaction. And it gave the local community a taste of what was the come with ISE and kept the connection to some of our key stakeholders.

In Munich and Amsterdam, the restrictions in place at the time meant we couldn’t run the events there and we had to cancel them. But London gave us the opportunity. Many of our people could not travel into London because of restrictions. So again it was a very local event and again we had some of the key players in the community coming together.

It was satisfying, but it was niche.

Do you think the general appetite for trade shows has changed following the pandemic?

There were concerns even in 2021, but we've seen the bounceback in every single industry for trade shows. Industry figures are showing that everybody's reporting strong figures returning back to pre-2020 times. Certainly for us, we exceeded pre-2020 with 58,000 people this year. We think that was a very, very good result.

And doing our surveys of the non-attendees, what we saw was a huge feeling and feedback from those who didn't come that they want to come in the future and are planning to attend in 2024.

So yes, trade shows are back. ISE is back. We're seeing a very, very strong attendance and satisfied exhibitors.

Is there any evidence that people are more cautious about committing their time to trade shows? Are they more choosy about the events that they attend?

I think that was there before, certainly. I think you know one of the negative aspects of the pandemic was the amount of people who had committed to flights and accommodation and travel, who lost money as a result – and the result is that people are making the decisions much, much later rather than risking their money. So that's been one result.

But certainly I think people are becoming generally more choosy about it. Our experience of ISE 2023 was that the people who didn't come, the no-shows, were more junior people from companies. Rather than seeing whole companies not appearing.

I spoke to one exhibitor from Germany pre-ISE and warned him that our registration level from Germany was lower than anticipated. And this senior manager called me straight after the show, he said, “We saw everybody we expected to see from Germany. Can you look at your numbers again?” When we looked at the companies who attended, what we found was that while the number of companies that came was less than before, it wasn't as big a drop as the reduction in our attendance. We saw that the companies who came with maybe 10 or 20 people only came with four or five this time. So obviously there’s a bit more selectivity around who can travel to a show.


>> Part 9: ISE and the industry

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