Trade shows attempt Atlanta comeback amid coronavirus surge

Metro area’s convention and event industry took $10B hit last year

The new normal of don’t travel, don’t touch and don’t join crowds doesn’t work for Jeff and Tina Salmans’ business.

The couple donned masks this week and braved the continued spread of COVID-19 to fly from Parkersburg, West Virginia and attend January’s Atlanta Market to pick out products to sell in their gift shop in 2021.

“We like to touch it and see it before buying,” said Tina Salmans while looking over baking and dip mixes made by Country Home Creations, a Michigan vendor.

The annual trade show kicks off the city’s entertainment and meeting industry that takes in everything from conventions to sporting events, concerts, trade shows and even family reunions — events that typically attract 57 million people and infuse an estimated $16 billion into the local economy.

Organizers expect more than 25,000 buyers and 800 wholesalers to attend the trade show, which runs through next Tuesday and specializes in home décor and gifts. That’s below the 50,000 who show up in a normal year.

But it’s up from the 10,000 who came last August for the only major Atlanta trade show not canceled after the pandemic arrived last year — a trade show the Salmanses skipped.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

COVID-19 wrecked planned events in Atlanta after March. Some 29 large conventions were canceled along with about 300 other events booked through the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau; so was the NCAA Final Four men’s basketball tournament, many of Atlanta United’s early season soccer games and other shows.

The pullback sucked $10 billion out of the Atlanta economy, according to estimates from the visitors bureau. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the pandemic cost Georgia 75,000 hospitality jobs.

Many see in the return of January’s big trade show and the rollout of coronavirus vaccines the beginnings of a slow climb back to normal for a critical Atlanta industry.

Of 38 convention bookings this year, only 10 have canceled, according to William Pate, CEO of the visitors bureau. Most events are in the second half of the year.

“I think there is good reason to be optimistic,” he said.

Others believe store owners’ online buying habits and other changes wrought by the pandemic will continue to curtail events and bleed out big trade shows.

Sunshine Mechtenberg from Maine has sold a line of fine ceramics and linens for more than 25 years. She was surprised to see as many people as she did Wednesday, the second day of the Atlanta Market trade show. “But by no means is it what it normally is,” she said.

There were long stretches of empty hallways and quiet showrooms.

The trade show is being held downtown at AmericasMart, three massive buildings up to 23 stories tall totaling more than 7 million square feet. This year the show is spread over eight days instead of five and vendor booths are spaced more widely to maintain distance.

Justin Gailitis, helping man the Country Home Creations booth, said people are getting used to safety protocols, such as the mask mandate, heightened cleaning and temperature checks.

Martha Schneider, who owns two home and interior design shops in Raleigh, North Carolina, also skipped the August show. But the January show is more important to shop owners, who said they do the majority of their buying at this time.

Schneider said she can’t make tactile and quality judgments when ordering off a computer screen. She and two assistants came for four days of shopping to replace her dwindling stock, including ordering high-end vases. She said sales have been “great,” as did several others interviewed.

People who are still working are not going on vacations, commuting or buying new work clothes, so have more spendable income, Schneider said. They are redecorating homes they are cooped up in. They are cooking more at home, treating themselves to gourmet foods, games and gadgets, several shop owners said.

So, buyers told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, they really needed to get to Atlanta and reorder the newest items — from furniture to stationary, from purses to Christmas nativity sets.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Still, wholesalers were already turning to more digital sales before the pandemic, and it only increased afterward.

Wakefield Research, an international market research firm, believes it is the beginning of a larger shift away from trade shows to market new products. Shows are expensive to host, expensive for buyers to travel to, and their impact is limited to those who can attend.

Microsoft’s last in-person Build Developer conference in 2019 attracted 6,000 people. The digital conference in 2020 attracted 200,000 from around the world, said Paul Bragan, a senior partner at Wakefield Research.

Brands also have an advantage by not timing announcements or new products to the dates of trade shows, added Bragan. He also noted numbers of attendees at big events like South by Southwest have fallen over the last few years.

International Market Centers, which owns Atlanta’s AmericasMart and large venues in High Point, North Carolina, and Las Vegas, recognized the coming changes. It invested $100 million last year in its digital arm, providing business-to-business websites, data analytics and sales support for customers.

“We’ve hired 100 technologists in the last 120 days,” said Bob Maricich, the company’s chief executive

He believes customers will continue to come to trade shows to build relationships with wholesalers and touch products, but will also continue a move to a blended experience using digital tools for presentations and purchases.

He is hoping for 7,000 to 8,000 attendees at AmericasMart’s apparel trade show in February. A real test will come in July, when the next big gift show opens in Atlanta. “I think if the vaccine is distributed as broadly as it should be, attendance will be in the 75% to 80% range of usual,” Maricich said.

“But that might be a tad optimistic.”

Pate, of the visitors bureau, believes that Atlanta’s conventions, events and shows will be back to normal by 2023.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC