The State of Exhibitions and Events in 2020

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The State of Exhibitions and Events in 2020

By Michelle Bruno | Apr 8, 2020

A special section brought to you by the International Association of Exhibitions & Events 

As a new decade begins, taking stock of what’s working and what isn’t helps organizations and people rethink and refine how they approach business and life. In exhibitions and events, it’s a time to review the current progress, opportunities and threats to make better, more informed decisions about the future.

This report was compiled shortly before the coronavirus was declared a global pandemic. Click here to visit IAEE’s Coronavirus Resources page.

Digital Transformation

One of the hottest topics in events today is digital transformation. It’s a challenge for many organizations, says Hugh K. Lee, owner of Fusion Productions and organizer of the annual digitalNow conference. One reason is that the term itself is misunderstood.

“Most of us still don’t understand the difference between digitizing and going digital or being digital,” Lee says.

Technology is moving faster than organizations can adapt. Innovations are integrating with and building on each other at an unprecedented rate. One example is sensors.

“Five or 10 years ago they became less expensive, and we started putting them into badges and things, which gave us more data—and more data led to Big Data, which led to artificial intelligence,” Lee explains. “We need to adapt, learn, govern and execute much faster, and we’re just not set up that way.”

And organizations aren’t leveraging data properly.

“Even if we have the right data, we’re collecting it in silos,” Lee says. “We’re not integrating it in any way, and it’s not being collected based on a cohesive strategy for innovation.

“We need to adapt, learn, govern and execute much faster, and we’re just not set up that way.”

In an optimal digital transformation scenario, “we would build technology platforms to share data, test strategies inexpensively and quickly, uncover attendee needs and then develop new business models that drive new solutions and new revenue,” he adds.

Guidance on digital transformation has surfaced. Fusion Productions and digitalNow have issued two of three reports on digital transformation. The first, Digital Transformation Assessment (DTATM) for Associations, A Revolution in Association Management, outlines a framework for organizations and event managers to benchmark digital transformation. The framework addresses digital urgency, leadership, governance, culture, talent, customer engagement, data-driven decision-making and products and services.

Progress is sluggish. The second report, Digital Pathways, Strategies & Metrics, describes slow-to-moderate improvement in 26 associations moving to “digital” and becoming digitized. However, a comprehensive data strategy is a challenge. Organizations need to improve data analytics skills, competencies and data governance culture, and use customer feedback in the product/service design process. Few look at data across channels to provide a holistic view of the customer, the report says.

Women in Events

In the event industry, women’s groups and initiatives are growing in size and impact, and the definition of women’s leadership has expanded. For example, the International Association of Exhibitions and Events® (IAEE) aims to support women in all aspects of their lives, not just in their professional roles.

“We believe that anyone can be a leader no matter what title they hold,” says Julie Cerza, director of member services and member recruiting for Nation’s Best Sports and the current chair of IAEE’s Women’s Leadership Committee.

Women in events face adversity. Women continue to earn less on average than their male counterparts, and the number of women in senior leadership positions is still low. Plus, women often straddle two very demanding worlds—home and office. As a result, “IAEE keeps watch on the salary difference between men and women in the industry, and we continue to work on stress and work-life integration,” Cerza says.

“IAEE keeps watch on the salary difference between men and women in the industry, and we continue to work on stress and work-life integration.”

Women are making some headway.

“Women are more valued, and there are more women in leadership roles and serving in many different capacities than before,” Cerza explains.

Another development is the uptick in women’s programming, awards and recognition from a range of event industry groups. IAEE offers regional women’s leadership programs, a signature two-day event and has awarded the Woman of Achievement Award since 2014.

Trade Show Executive has its annual Women to Watch list, IMEX offers women’s programming, MPI offers certificate programs and so on—and that’s a growing trend in the industry as a whole,” Cerza says.

There is also more awareness of gender diversity.

“I think that whether it’s directly or indirectly, male leaders who are doing the hiring are more cognizant of gender, and I think they look to diversify their team the same way that I would,” says Nancy Walsh, president, Fashion Portfolio, Informa Markets. “It’s different people and different ways of looking at things that get you to better places.”

Exhibition Format

The exhibition format remains distinct and sustainable even after decades of service.

“It’s simple. Face-to-face marketing works,” says Cathy Breden, CMP, CAE, CEM, CEO of the Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR).

However, CEIR’s Attendee Floor Engagement Study revealed that half of the exhibitor respondents were also interested in new formats. Those identified include ways to connect exhibitors and attendees without standard pipe and drape (21 percent); smaller, more personalized and curated shows (20 percent); hybrid trade shows (16 percent); and shows that offer a broader geographic representation of specific target sectors (17 percent). 

Exhibitions are evolving, Breden says, with “organizers exploring and producing events inside events, creating engaging experiences and activations. They are focusing more on understanding what their attendees’ needs and preferences are and helping them to map their journey while at the event. It’s also about the hyper-personalization that is going on in the broader society today.”

In exhibitions, entertainment (festivalization and gamification, for example) isn’t more important than business objectives, but that may change. The UFI and Explori Global Visitor Insights 2018/2019 report cites, “The majority of visitors currently place little value on entertainment—they want to achieve their business objectives.” However, data suggests that “Millennials (those under 35) and Gen Z visitors (those aged 25 and under) are significantly more likely to embrace the idea of entertainment being of importance alongside business objectives.”


The event industry is becoming more conscious of its environmental impact. Both organizers and suppliers are questioning existing habits.

“Should we have carpet? What happens with the unused product? What happens to the materials afterward from booths that have a short life? Do we need all the signage? Could we do digital signage?” Walsh says.

The workplace is also assimilating sustainable practices.

“I see a big commitment in terms of sustainability,” Walsh explains. “When I sit down at my desk at Informa, there is no garbage can and you have to go up and recycle everything in the recycling bins. There are no disposable plastic bottles. Everybody brings their reusable water bottle to work and uses the water machine.”

Sustainability has become a universal aspiration. While it’s top of mind for companies, it’s also a driver for employees. Walsh describes a recent town hall meeting at Informa at which the CEO answered a question from the audience about whom sustainable practices benefit.

“He turned it around and said, ‘How many of you are interested in climate change, saving our planet and making it a better place for our children?’ and everybody raised their hands,” she says.



Michelle Bruno
Michelle Bruno

Michelle Bruno is a writer, blogger and technology journalist. She publishes Event Tech Brief, a newsletter and website on event technology. You can reach her at or @michellebruno on Twitter.