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Virtual isn’t as good.

It’s one of the unavoidable lessons of doing business in the age of COVID, despite the miracle of Zoom

and all the charms of skipping the morning commute. There’s just stuff we get by being face-to-face with each other, even if it means uncomfortable shoes in the office and in-person harangues from HR.

Stuff like gossip, colleagues, lunches, face time (not to be confused with FaceTime) and the all-important in-person chance to persuade clients and customers to purchase whatever it is we are selling now.

So have you been to any good trade shows lately?

Not at the Manhattan’s Javits Center, you haven’t—or at the vast majority of other exhibition halls across the U.S. The mass convening shutdown or went virtual more than a year ago, and it is only now inching back to life, as people in the convention industry are defining what the new normal is going to be.

No one is in a better position to know than Hervé Sedky, president and CEO of Manhattan-based Emerald, the nation’s largest producer of these business-to-business events, and chairman of ECA, the Exhibitions and Conferences Alliance, an umbrella organization of eight professional associations that advocate for the industry.

“In March of last year,” Sedky said, “I got together with my competitors, the CEOs and COOs of the five or six players in the industry that put on the vast majority of all the events that we have. We knew COVID-19 was going to have an impact on all of us. We didn’’t realize at the time how devastating an impact. But we basically said that it’s going to be a new world no matter what. And when we reopen, we’re going to have to return with very clear guidelines that raise the bar on safety, on hygiene and how we organize these events.”

Also read: Broadway gets a shot in the arm toward safely reopening in September

That realization has produced All-Secure 2.0, an excruciatingly detailed rundown of what a safe gathering should look like in 2021 and perhaps beyond. 

Some of the changes will be familiar to anyone who’s left the house in recent months, such as mandatory face masks, reduced crowd density, staggered admission times and beefed-up HVAC systems. Others are more particular to the event world: Building wider aisles. Using QR codes to shorten lines and facilitate seamless access. And no more self-service buffets.

Some of the new protocols may require some getting used to—or an influx of stern security guards: Discouraging hugs and handshakes, even among people who haven’t seen each other for a while. And constantly reminding the visitors, “Look at the samples but please don’t touch.”

“The All-Secure guidelines are now the industry standard for reopening trade shows,” Sedky said. “All of us have signed on to using these protocols.”

There’s a lot at stake for many American industries and also for cities like New York, Las Vegas and New Orleans that count on hosting these events: an $11-billion industry that in normal times generates 6.6 million jobs, $396 million in direct spending and $130 billion in tax revenues, according to the industry count. These events are most important to small businesses with large ambitions, companies that want to sell beyond their own neighborhoods but don’t have the full-time infrastructure of global sales and marketing teams. For them, getting a booth at a trade show is a way to show off new products, generate sales leads, do some networking and eyeball their competitors.

The early returns are just coming in.

Sedky’s company, Emerald, put on a Surf Expo that drew 5,000 people to Orlando in January. Another firm staged a fashion event there in February. “We worked closely with the local health department,” he said. “They had no reports of any COVID cases as a result of those shows.”

Also see: As New York coffers recover from a crushing year, how dependent is the city on federal funding?

So how soon will the large events be back at other venues, including Manhattan’s massive Javits Center, which in a normal year hosts 175 events with more than 2 million visitors but lately has been serving as a pop-up mega-slinger of Pfizer,


and Johnson & Johnson


“Based on our discussions with state officials and health officials in New York,” Sedky said, “I’m confident that shows will be allowed in New York again by mid- to late-summer with some capacity restrictions.” Nevada, where shows are returning sooner, has been a good safety model to follow, he said.

And whenever these events return, fun needs to be part of the equation, along with safety. It’s been a rough 14 months. Business people are craving fun.

“I think fun and inspiration need to be infused in everything we do,” Sedky said. “As we get people networking again, we have to make things safe, and we have to make them inspiring and fun. It can all go together. That’s what we’re learning here.”

Ellis Henican is an author based in New York City and a former newspaper columnist.

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