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Gathering Together

Trade shows and the new normal

Gathering Together

The industrywide shutdown due to the global pandemic has challenged everyone, from operators with zero revenue to suppliers with zero sales. But some of the earliest victims of this crisis were trade shows.

Trade shows, in fact, are still disappearing, even as a combination of social distancing and ingenious technology to zap germs with UV light have made the reopening of casinos seem imminent. Large gatherings cause spikes in infection amid a pandemic, and a trade show is, by definition, a large gathering.

Thus, a trade event calendar that many thought was already more crowded than it should be was clearing its slate by mid-April. Indian Gaming: Postponed until further notice. ICE North America/Southern Gaming Summit: canceled, although ICE producer Clarion Gaming was very successful in staging a digital version last month. ICE Asia and SiGMA Manila, the IAGA International Gaming Summit, G2E Asia, ASEAN Gaming Summit, East Coast Gaming Conference, the OIGA Conference and Trade Show—all canceled or postponed.

At press time, the supply sector was still awaiting word on the two largest industry trade shows—the Global Gaming Expo in Las Vegas, at press time still scheduled for October; and next February’s ICE London show.

Officials of the American Gaming Association and Reed Exhibitions, producers of G2E, spoke to suppliers—as G2E exhibitors, the show’s lifeline—at the May board meeting of the Association of Gaming Equipment Manufacturers, where they fielded inquiries from increasingly impatient supplier executives seeking a firm decision on whether or not the trade show will go on in October as planned.

“We’ve had lot of conversations over the last month with exhibitors,” Will Wise, Reed Exhibitions’ group vice president for G2E events, told AGEM board members. “And of course, the natural question everyone has right now is, will the October event definitively happen or not? The real answer to that is pending.”

Wise said the show’s producers must consider, “first and foremost,” the health and safety factor. “Is it going to be viable to do an event in the fall?” he said. “Every other trade show or conference in the fall is addressing the same question.

“But equally for our industry, we have the serious consideration and question mark of the business viability, the business opportunity. And that is a major question right now.”

The show’s producers have been meeting the buyers and the operators—“our common customer here”—to assess whether they will draw value from the show.

AGEM board members, who ultimately will be the ones spending millions to exhibit at G2E, pressed the show’s producers for more specifics, and noted that their own conversations with operators have typically resulted in what AGEM Executive Director Marcus Prater described as, “What, are you crazy? We’re not even interested in G2E; we’re trying to save our business.” Prater went on to say that those same operators said they are likely to attend G2E in some capacity if it does go on.

However, another AGEM board member commented that some operators are planning to send a handful of officials, where normally they would send 50 or 60. “At some point in time, you have to address the individuals and the companies who are exhibiting and spending the money at this trade show, and not the attendees,” the official said.

Korbi Carrison, G2E event director for Reed Exhibitions, assured the members that they will have the answers regarding G2E within the coming weeks. She said the AGA and Reed have employed a third-party consultant to do a fast but exhaustive survey of potential G2E attendees, for the purpose of helping exhibitors make plans for their participation.

“We’re looking at a sampling of over 2,000 previous G2E attendees,” she said, “and those are folks we previously identified as key buyers. They’re going to be segmented into a sampling of the attendance of G2E. We’re looking at not only the U.S. and Canada, but international attendees, and we’re looking at representatives across Native American gaming, commercial gaming—a cross-section of the attendees that come to G2E.”

The survey results were expected to pour in the last two weeks of May, with results by mid-June.

Meanwhile, Reed and the AGA are offering flexible terms to make it easy for exhibitors to adjust their participation according to changing financial situations during the shutdown. On April 24, Allie Barth, senior vice president of industry relations for the AGA, outlined the rules, which, she wrote, would allow “a lot of creativity to reinvent the exhibitor and attendee experience.”

G2E exhibitors would pay no penalties for downgrading booths, there would be on-site material handling and freight services subsidies, on-site marketing services and free meals, among other services.

New Look

If and when G2E 2020 does take place, it’s certain it will not look like G2E 2019. “G2E in 2020 will not be the same as years past,” says Carrison. “The health and safety of our exhibitors, attendees and employees is our No. 1 priority. We are following all public health regulations from local, state and federal officials as we move forward with planning.

“Visible changes to G2E will accommodate health and safety requirements that are still being established, and embrace newer ways of connecting the industry, conducting business, and advancing the profession. Several trade show associations and groups are formulating best practices that will be considered. Additionally, Reed Exhibitions USA has formed a health and safety task force that will identify, develop and implement policies and procedures for our events.”

The education portion also will reflect changes brought about by the pandemic. “Our goal with G2E education is to provide leading, quality content,” says Meredith Pallante, the AGA’s senior director of events. “This need has never been more urgent. None of the ways that any of us have traditionally delivered content, convened, or shared information has been the same as pre-Covid. We anticipate greater integration of new technology in all aspects of this year’s show, including G2E education.”

Carrison says health and safety, though, will come first. “Our team is actively coordinating with the Sands Expo and Convention Center, monitoring public health guidelines, and taking steps to ensure health and safety,” she says. “None of us have been through a global pandemic, so there’s still a lot that we’re all figuring out to ensure we’re creating a safe, secure environment.

“Some of the trends that we anticipate include additional sanitizing stations, increased spacing of aisles, signage to support physical distancing requirements, designating directional traffic flows, and more. Learning from the hundreds of trade shows that Reed Exhibitions has within its global portfolio (in addition to G2E) will be an incredible advantage for implementing the best approach.”

Clarion Gaming, producer of the other huge industry trade show, ICE London, has a similar advantage. Clarion has hosted trade events in multiple industries, including the ICE family of trade shows.

Kate Chambers, managing director of Clarion Gaming, says the company is adapting to the changing situation, even seven months before ICE London is slated to occupy London’s ExCeL Centre.

“My key message to our community based throughout the world is that we are not going to hide from the challenges that lie ahead and we are not going to duck the responsibilities that we have to the industry,” Chambers says. “The industry has shown huge faith in us, particularly in the ICE brand. The industry has helped us to grow and to develop, and it’s our responsibility to repay that faith in any way or ways that we can. The ICE brand will continue to represent the best interests of the industry and we will work even harder on the industry’s behalf.”

Chambers says even at this early date, she can promise that ICE London 2021 will be different than previous editions—as will everything else in the post-Covid world.

“Already the world is a very different place,” Chambers says. “The U.K. went into lockdown on March 23, and even in that (relatively) short time frame, there have been huge shifts in human and commercial behavior…

“What I can do, however, is provide some insight into how we are working as a team, the lessons that we have learned and continue to learn as well as the thinking that we are applying to what is the biggest human and economic challenge the world has faced for 100 years.”

“There’s absolutely no doubt that ICE London 2021 will be different,” Chambers says. “Our challenge is to do everything possible to demonstrate and ensure a healthy environment at ICE London.

“As we create a vision of what the future could look like we are also drawing on the experience of other events that will go live before ICE London, and to also look at the social distancing, hygiene and people management undertakings being made by other commercial sectors such as food, retail and professional sport.”

Going Digital

Chambers says Clarion’s current efforts are aimed at defining what the “new normal” will be for trade events. If this year’s Covid-19 shutdown has shown anything, it’s that digital events are going to be a big part of that new normal.

Already this year, several trade events have produced virtual shows, using the internet to substitute for the in-person events to great success. SBC Digital held a virtual Sports Betting America conference at the end of April, and ICE Asia and SiGMA Manila will be presented in virtual form as well.

But the biggest digital success so far was Clarion Gaming’s ICE North America Digital, prepared in record time after the decision was made to cancel the May 13-14 New Orleans event, planned to coincide with the Southern Gaming Summit.

“We wanted to be able to provide delegates and attendees with information, which I think is still important, regardless of what’s going on at the moment,” says Rory Credland, Clarion’s events director for the ICE Totally Gaming portfolio. “Everyone’s still hungry for education and knowledge. We discussed how to bring ICE North America New Orleans to additional formats, and how much of that we can replicate as closely as possible to what people would have experienced in a physical format.”

The event was an unqualified success. The week-long, free-to-attend gathering of operators, suppliers and regulators featured 50 speakers during five days of content dedicated to the land-based, online and tribal betting and gaming markets in the U.S, as well as its growing hospitality tech sector. It attracted over 4,000 registrations from 558 companies based in 85 countries around the world, who recorded over 7,000 visits to the site.

The networking area of the Swapcard platform upon which it was hosted was equally popular, witnessing over 5,000 business discussions take place and 2,000 new connections made.

“We were all disappointed when we couldn’t meet up in New Orleans, but we were acutely aware that the show—in one form or another—had to go on,” Credland says.

The AGA’s Pallante says that in the event G2E does not go on as planned in October, a digital G2E would be a possibility. “Nothing is off the table as we plan what G2E may look like this fall,” she says. “As we’ve seen in recent months, a lot can change very quickly, and we’re accounting for a variety of scenarios for G2E 2020.”

Planning for the Future

The Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent shutdown of the industry will change more than just this year’s trade show calendar. With many suppliers in the industry struggling to meet an increasingly demanding trade event schedule, the current crisis may change the look of trade events for years to come.

“In general, suppliers are in agreement there have been too many trade shows and conferences at their expense in recent history,” says AGEM’s Prater, “but certainly no one wanted what we’re seeing now with everything canceled or postponed. The future is uncertain as we stand here in mid-May, and so it’s difficult to predict what the landscape will look like going forward.”

Prater adds that the current crisis should not, in itself, be an excuse to avoid in-person events in the future. “Yes, here in mid-May,” he says, “the idea of hanging out closely at a trade show with thousands of people doesn’t sound very good, even though we miss our friends, colleagues and customers that make this industry so unique.

“The future is unclear how things will look in the coming months. I hope we don’t lose the ability for face-to-face business at shows, or anywhere else for that matter, but we will have to continue adapting and being thankful for the digital connections we have been relying on during lockdown. I do know the suppliers will continue to reduce expenses in all areas as we fight through this.”

Tom Jingoli, executive vice president and chief operating officer of major G2E exhibitor Konami Gaming, Inc., says the Covid-19 crisis is giving the industry more immediate challenges than the months of planning that go into trade show participation.

“Now as we speak in the third week of May, we’ve all seen how Covid-19 has impacted every area of our industry,” Jingoli says. “Throughout the crisis, employee health and safety has been of paramount importance at Konami Gaming, and we hear the same from casinos we serve across the globe.

“Similar to our competitors, Konami has been forced into employee furloughs and layoffs. Large cuts in revenue have placed us in the position to have to make difficult decisions to ensure the long-term viability of the business. All considered, we believe the ROI is greater on investing in our employees than investing in trade show participation.

“We don’t know for certain what the coming months will look like for industry events, but those planning decisions have to be made now. As of today, Konami has taken the position to remove trade show events from our budget for the remainder of this fiscal year, and instead focus investment on our team members.”

Jingoli adds that this year’s decision is not a long-term decision with respect to G2E. “Trade shows represent a substantial investment, which is why Konami has historically been active in evaluating each event individually on a regular basis, to ensure the timing makes sense for our customers, people, and products,” he says.

“Based on what we’ve observed so far on the effects of Covid-19 on public events through mid-May of this year, it clearly has to be considered as part of the investment equation. And unfortunately in many cases, a paring back will have to take place. As an industry, any return to large trade show events will need to clearly advance our shared growth, success, innovation, responsibility, and of course, safety, to appropriately balance the health risk and financial costs.”

Frank Legato
Frank Legato is editor of Global Gaming Business magazine. He has been writing on gaming topics since 1984, when he launched and served as editor of Casino Gaming magazine. Legato, a nationally recognized expert on slot machines, has served as editor and reporter for a variety of gaming publications, including Public Gaming, IGWB, Casino Journal, Casino Player, Strictly Slots and Atlantic City Insider. He has an B.A. in journalism and an M.A. in communications from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. He is the author of the books, How To Win Millions Playing Slot Machines... Or Lose Trying, and Atlantic City: In Living Color.