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If In-Person Trade Shows Return This Year, Will Anyone Attend?

The Covid-19 pandemic derailed virtually every semblance of normalcy in 2020, and denim trade shows were no exception. Events around the world were promptly canceled following reports of an uncontrollable virus most easily spread in close quarters with little ventilation. As the denim industry is well aware, that description almost exactly mirrors what every traditional trade show had been up until that point.

Fast forward almost one full year later, and the industry’s biggest trade shows are finding success in a digital-first environment. Kingpins24 emerged as Kingpins’ online supplement to its physical show. Denim PV introduced a week-long digital denim event. Informa Markets Fashion and e-commerce platform NuOrder partnered on what they called the industry’s “largest digital” trade show, and Liberty Fairs worked with wholesale platform Joor to debut its first virtual marketplace.

At the same time, vaccines are finally being distributed in some areas of the world, inspiring hope that the virus might soon be under control. This was positive news for some, including Kingpins founder Andrew Olah, who in a 2020 wrap-up letter said the event will be “back in action” in China in September, Amsterdam in October and New York City in the late fall.

Kingpins is not the only show eyeing in-person events. Informa plans to hold an in-person Magic Pop-Up event in Orlando in February, followed by Magic Las Vegas in August. Denim Première Vision aims to return to Milan in May, followed by Berlin in November.

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But others are a little more hesitant regarding trade shows in 2021. Though Lenzing’s director of global business development-denim and loyal Kingpins attendee Tricia Carey says it’s possible she would attend the in-person event later in the year, she points out that a lot needs to happen before then.

“How can there be in-person trade shows if people do not even go into their office?” she said, referring to the number of workers conducting business from the safety of their own homes. “There is an order in which people are going to progress. We can’t go from home office to travel the world.”

She added that the first step is to get back into a regular in-office routine and then move towards travel, beginning with regional events.

Michelle Branch, creative director at Markt&Twigs, Inc., echoed that sentiment, noting that she’ll likely start with in-person events close to her home in the New York metro area and limit the shows that require air travel.

“Based on what we’ve all experienced in 2020, we know that we can get the job done with much less travel,” she said. “While I definitely miss seeing friends from around the world, I can’t imagine we will ever return to the volume of shows we attended pre-Covid.”

Before the severity of the virus was realized, Rivet compiled a list of 21 industry events that were on the agenda for 2020, with events scheduled throughout Europe, the U.S. and Asia. Just a handful, however, actually took place.

Though digital trade shows experienced a bumpy start, many attendees reveled in the convenience of simply logging onto an event platform in the comfort of their own home to learn about the industry’s new developments and methods for navigating the unprecedented times. On top of that, an industry hungry for new sustainable practices realized it could accomplish many of its trade show goals in an environmentally friendlier manner.

The pandemic triggered organizers of in-person events throughout the industry to examine their footprint, and the numbers were significant. According to the Council of Fashion Designers of America and strategy firm Boston Consulting Group, New York Fashion Week alone generates between 40,000 tons to 48,000 tons of carbon dioxide.

That said, many feel there will always be a need for in-person events—especially within an industry that relies so heavily on the physical act of touching fabrics. According to Elena Faleschini, Isko’s global field marketing manager who works out of Milan, in-person events will likely be more global than ever post-Covid, thanks in part to hybrid formats.

“In-person shows may be physically scaled down, but this does not mean in any way that they will disappear,” she said. “They will evolve and will actually be more accessible to a global crowd, who will be able to attend a show via a digital platform, sitting perhaps from across the world. It will be a hybrid way of working, to which we have already partially adapted.”

That said, trade shows will need to operate differently than they did pre-Covid, both in terms of safety features and setup. Branch foresees things like hand sanitizer stations situated alongside mobile device charging areas, larger tables and more spacious booths, temperature checks upon entry, and, of course, a mask mandate for everyone on the show floor.

Branch also noted that shortening presentations might also help reduce exposure—which she says in theory shouldn’t be a problem. “If the supply chain is developing less as we’ve all been discussing for months, presentations should take less time,” she said.

Networking time is another area she predicts will change, stating that people will be more likely to stick to business, rather than risk exposure for something less essential. “I imagine it will be sort of how I grocery shop now: mask up, make a list to stay focused, get in, find what I need and get out,” she said.

But it’s not all doom and gloom, despite almost an entire year of grim headlines and a staggering number of people affected. Faleschini noted that it’s important to view the “new” world with a positive outlook. “This is our opportunity to increase efficiency, improve the way we travel and capitalize on digital tools to increase business opportunities,” she said.