No Easy Answers, But There Is Hope for Trade Show Industry

Andrea Doyle, Senior News Editor
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ATLANTA – If you’re looking for expert advice about when it might be safe to hit the show floor again, the following words are especially reassuring coming from a man who knows Dr. Anthony Fauci well enough to say, “He is the most legitimate, honest guy out there.”

A frequent guest on cable news and an MSNBC contributor, Dr. Irwin Redlener, M.D. is a Senior Research Scholar and Director of the Pandemic Resource and Response Initiative (PRRI) of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, which works to understand and improve the capacity to prepare for, respond to and recover from disasters. He shared his wisdom exclusively during a September 24th SISO webinar, where he helped listeners understand the implications for the future of the exhibitions and events industry.

“The pandemic has changed everything for everyone on the planet,” Redlener said. Cases are growing and occurring in multiple geographic waves and the pandemic “has upturned all of our lives and won’t be completely over for a few years,” although he is optimistic that the business of getting back to work will begin much sooner. “We can reopen, but we have to do it cautiously and thoughtfully,” he added.

Redlener urged show organizers to begin with a careful assessment of potential venues, examining community spread and asking:

Irwin Redlener, M.D.

“What’s happening in that community? What is the public health capacity of the location you are considering?”

“Long lead times are a big problem,” he readily admitted, but if a community is not safe today, he wouldn’t assume it’s going to be safe six to eight months from now.

“POC [point of care] testing is critical to getting us back to business,” said moderator Hervé Sedky, SISO Vice Chair and President of the Americas at Reed Exhibitions.

“You don’t want to select a place where there is no capacity for widescale testing and tracing,” Redlener advised. On-site medical teams are critical, he said, suggesting groups factor in the associated costs for a medical POC team to support their events. Redlener is hopeful that rapid testing will soon be available where special lab equipment is not required, and simple and fast test strips can test for both the presence and serology (of antibodies).

Redlener said precautions and protocols will need to be end-to-end. “From the time a person steps off the plane until end the of event — and maybe beyond — what are the protocols that have to be in place?” Redlener asked, urging organizers to embrace full transparency with exhibitors, participants, staff, etc. “Everyone has to know what you assess as risk and what you are going to do so there are no misunderstandings later.”

Another consideration is insurance coverage: “What happens when an area that was fine while booking experiences a sudden surge? You’ve put a deposit down, now what?”

Also on the agenda: innovative alternative hybrid meetings. “Virtual meetings make sense; that’s for planners to judge. Is there some way to do an exhibition without doing it entirely in person?” he asked.

Redlener admitted that the messaging from the White House has been dangerous. “The public hears reopening and thinks all is back to normal and that’s just not the case. The POTUS and his optics are outright destructive to our understanding and ability to manage this pandemic,” he said, adding that with no real national policies or protocols, random state and federal acts of response, misinformation, lack of transparency and assessments must be made on a case by case basis. “States are going it on their own,” he added.

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Until there is a vaccine, someone will have to do testing, Redlener said. This might mean an on-site nurse practitioner and small infirmary at minimum. Redlener has no set formula for determining whether a medical team is needed, saying, “This depends on many factors: How big is the show? How many cases in the community?” These are just a few of the most important considerations, he warned.

That leaves much of the heavy decision making in the hands of planners, as per usual.

During this time of turmoil and upheaval, Redlener reminded participants to look for enjoyment and humor. “Buck up and deal with it,” he said good-naturedly. “The act of doing that feels good. Yes, this is awful, but we’re going to get through this.”

Reach Hervé Sedky at (203) 840-5800 or hsedky@reedexpo.com.