CEOs speak candidly on events
Two leaders ‘confident’ in-person shows are a go; health group keeps virtual option
The Consumer Technology Association and the National Retail Federation are moving ahead with confidence as they plan for in-person trade shows next January. But the American College of Healthcare Executives is hedging bets for its March 2022 annual meeting, in case a virtual event is necessary.
Those were among the viewpoints shared by chief executives representing three diverse sectors with different types of meetings during the CEO Update LIVE webinar “Meetings: Return to Relevance (and Revenue)” on Aug. 26.
“The encouraging thing from our perspective is, we’re beyond talk about shutdowns and closures and stopping the economy,” said panelist Matthew Shay, NRF CEO. “Schools will reopen in person, businesses are reopened.
“There’s too much momentum in the economy and there’s too much confidence to consider what would happen about canceling. We won’t cancel. Our show will happen. It will go on. We’re very confident about that.”
NRF’s large annual conference, The BIG Show, is scheduled Jan. 16-18 at the Javits Center in New York. Before the pandemic, the show had been on pace to attract 50,000 attendees last winter, Shay said.
For next January, “our exhibits are well sold, we’re well on the way to the budget number we established for ourselves this year,” he said. But Shay noted that there may be restrictions on attendees traveling from overseas.
The other panelists were CTA CEO Gary Shapiro and ACHE CEO Deborah Bowen. CEO Update Editor-in-Chief Lynn McNutt moderated the discussion.
Shapiro echoed Shay, saying “we intend to go forward” with its huge show, CES 2022, in Las Vegas Jan. 5-8.
“We already have over 1,100 companies signed up, we have 1.6 million square feet of exhibit space sold,” Shapiro said. “The reality is … human beings need each other. We need that contact, especially in the business world.”
CTA has announced it will require attendees to show proof of vaccination, though there’s a possibility it could allow proof of COVID-19 antibodies, Shapiro said. The state of Nevada has reimposed indoor mask mandates in several locations, including Las Vegas. Shapiro said CTA has received surprisingly little backlash over its mandate, apart from some online comments by “anti-vaxxers.” (In New York, site of NRF’s BIG Show, proof of vaccination is currently required for many indoor activities, including conventions.)
ACHE’s much smaller 2022 Congress on Healthcare Leadership is scheduled March 28-31 at the Hyatt Regency Chicago. Prior to the pandemic, the event typically drew 4,000 attendees. (Its virtual event earlier this year drew 9,200 people.)
“Two weeks ago, we were in a full-court press to plan for a face-to-face event,” Bowen said. “Now, having seen all of the implications, the stress, the added work, the increase in cases that all of our members are facing, I obviously don’t know how things are going to emerge.
“We are in a situation where we have to really plan on parallel fronts,” she said. “We’re going to move forward with all the optimism of holding a face-to-face and all the benefits that brings in terms of the intimacy of our interactions and the people we’ve missed, and the conversations we’ve missed.
“But again, we also have to be realistic that people may not be able to come,” Bowen said. “If the ICU is filled and people can’t leave their institutions, we’ve also got a plan for virtual.”
In response to an attendee question, Bowen said ACHE would likely refund registration fees in certain circumstances if the event is held virtually.
“We consider ourselves a trusted partner to our members,” she said. “We fully refunded when we canceled last time. We would probably refund, under certain policies now, if we had to make a decision that was not upholding the promise that we made upon purchase.
“You really want to make those decisions while you’re rolling out your pricing policies, and not be in a position after the fact where people have one impression and you’re changing the rules on them,” Bowen said.
Shay and Shapiro spoke about responding to the cancellation of their shows last winter. Both NRF and CTA are in a strong position financially to weather the storm, they said.
“The (board) leadership of the NRF determined that from a strategic perspective, this was the time the industry needed the support of the NRF more than ever,” Shay said.
“It was the 100-year flood and there is no point in having flood insurance then saying, ‘Oh, we’re not going to fulfill the policy.’ So, we didn’t have any staff reductions, we didn’t have any benefit adjustments for the team,” he said. “We kept the team intact, we kept people working for and serving the industry.”
Shapiro said CTA did make staff and other reductions.
“While we cut back, I actually insisted to my board—they objected, we negotiated, I started with a serious reduction and ended up with a modest one—I took a salary cut,” he said. “I felt like we were going to all of our vendors that we had used for years, we’re asking everyone to cut back, asking staff to cut back. …
“We acted quickly in April 2020 to make a whole bunch of financial cutbacks, because we simply didn’t have the income to justify what we were doing in the long term,” Shapiro said. “Our feeling was this is going to go on for a while, we have to start cutting now. …
“Sometimes cleansing of expenses and frankly even employees is healthy for the organization,” he said.
But CTA also invested in new things, including the digital show it held in January 2021, and in what Shapiro called “high growth” areas.
“We use the example of, ‘We save for a rainy day; we have to put our galoshes on and start spending,’” he said. “We’ve been very (financially) conservative over the years, and people wondered why.”