Opinion: Trade shows will help economic recovery

Henderson Sewing's exhibit booth at an industry trade show prior to such events being canceled by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

Safely resuming business events will especially help small firms recover from COVID-19 downturn.

Meet Frank Henderson, CEO and Owner of Henderson Sewing, an industrial sewing company. In addition to serving its core customers in the apparel industry, the 52-year-old company has grown and expanded into 80 different market sectors — from tires and auto interiors to aerospace and wind turbines. The third-generation, family-owned business employs 30 people in Andalusia, Alabama, and sells its products into 42 of the 50 states and exports them to 34 countries.

Like many small businesses across America, Henderson Sewing had planned to exhibit its new product innovations in trade shows across the country in 2020. That never happened. The trade shows and business events that were a critical sales and marketing tool in helping small businesses grow simply stopped because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Today, we are battling COVID-19, but we must also plan for economic assistance, stability, and growth without delay.

David Audrain

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

As debate continues about the next phase of coronavirus response legislation, Congress is considering the Business Events Recovery Act, championed by key House and Senate stakeholders, which includes a tax credit to incentivize attendee and exhibitor participation in trade shows, in addition to the extension and expansion of PPP and other funding necessary to keep the industry afloat. Such an incentive will be critical to help cash-strapped small businesses that are focused on staying solvent in the near term to innovate and cross-pollinate for the long term — which is not only good for the companies themselves but also the broader economy.

Henderson Sewing exhibits in ExpoProduccion and the Furniture Manufacturing Expo, both are trade shows produced by ExpoDevCo, which is owned by me and my partner, Stephanie Everett. Based in the Atlanta area, ExpoDevCo employs 15 people. Like 99% of companies that make up the business events industry, ours is also a small business.

In 2020, ExpoDevCo planned to produce 11 business events for about 2,000 exhibiting companies. We hosted three events before COVID-19, but have canceled or postponed our remaining eight events in 2020. ExpoDevCo produces business events that serve a wide variety of industries, including restaurant, furniture, pet, techno-security and digital forensics. That means lost business for hundreds of small companies that serve these industries.

Small businesses create two-thirds of net new jobs, driving U.S. innovation and competitiveness, and account for nearly half – 44% – of U.S. GDP. Unfortunately, small businesses have also been hit hardest by the pandemic. If the previous recession is an indicator, small businesses employed 45% of U.S. workers prior to the Great Recession, but they accounted for 62% of all jobs lost. At the same time, we know from past recessions that creating a favorable environment for small business is essential to supporting a swift and robust recovery of the broader economy.

An empty fair hall is pictured beside the trade fair Caravan Salon in Duesseldorf, Germany, Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020. All trade shows were cancelled with the start of the coronavirus pandemic. The caravan exhibition is one of the very first consumer trade shows, that was allowed with a comprehensive hygiene concept since the virus outbreak. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

Credit: Martin Meissner

Credit: Martin Meissner

The business events industry comprises an interconnected ecosystem of organizations including exhibitors, show and event organizers, suppliers, venues and destinations. Together, the industry’s contributions to local economies across this country are multifaceted, with many direct and indirect impacts. In 2019, the events industry contributed $396 billion in direct spending, with 6.6 million jobs dependent on live events.

“Customers are looking for creative solutions they don’t currently use, and buyers want new products,” said Henderson. “When we exhibit at a trade show, 60% of products we bring to a show are new.” Each year, his company develops new products, like enhanced automation and robotic technology, to meet customer needs.

How does he measure success at business events? “It’s not always about sales,” he said. “It’s also about exposure to new markets and the opportunity to see more customers in a shorter amount of time. Cost-per-contact over the course of a 3- to 4- day show is much lower than if I would have had to travel to each of those 42 states and 34 countries. Costs — in terms of time and money — are significantly lower at shows.”

There’s no way to replicate the live, in-person experience online. When you bring hundreds of companies together to sell products and thousands of attendees to find products at a trade show, you generate direct impact for the ecosystem that serves business events, as well as multitudes of millions beyond that for the companies that are doing business in those sectors. Dollars spent in jumpstarting this vital channel are dollars that will directly drive our nation’s economic recovery.

David Audrain is CEO and partner of metro Atlanta-based Exposition Development Company Inc. (ExpoDevCo).