5 Events Industry Predictions

Trade-show organizer Greg Topalian looked back at trends he predicted a decade ago and offered five more for the next 10 years during his presentation at ECEF.

Author: Michelle Russell       

male speaker on stage

Greg Topalian, chairman of Clarion Events Inc., North America, shares his five bold predictions for the events industry at ECEF 2024 in May. (Photo courtesy ECEF)

Ten years ago, in his keynote presentation at ECEF (Exhibition & Convention Executives Forum), Greg Topalian, who had just left his senior vice president role at Reed Exhibitions to start his own company, made some bold predictions about what events would look like in a decade. Fast forward to 2024, and ECEF producer Sam Lippman invited Topalian, now chairman of Clarion Events Inc., North America, to return to the stage to share with this year’s audience how on — or off — the mark he was with his predictions, and to offer some similarly bold new ones.

In 2014, Topalian used Blockbuster’s failure as a lesson for the events industry. He said that part of Blockbuster’s downfall was its overreliance on late fees as central to its business model, preventing the video rental company from evolving. At the time, he challenged the audience, saying, “We have a lot of late fees…. things that we’ve been doing this way because we’ve been doing them this way for a long time. And my challenge was: ‘If we don’t change, Netflix can come and eat our lunch.’”

So, was he prescient? “Halfway,” Topalian said. “We still have too many late fees. We haven’t changed as many things as I would like to have seen us change.” But, he admitted, there was no “Netflix” to swallow up the events industry. “We are healthy today. This is a good business.”

In his next prediction a decade ago, Topalian made Comic Con his “beacon. I urged everyone not to dismiss it as ‘Oh, that’s for fans. People dress up at that,’” he said. “What I was trying to say and what I think I was most right [about], is that your best customer is really your audience and if you delight them and start thinking about their experience — joy, fun, learning, all that comes with that — you will win. And those kinds of events, those kinds of experiences are what people want.”

Looking Ahead

In fact, that is Topalian’s first prediction for what to expect in the next decade: A consumer-like experience is even more relevant today. “Your customers — I don’t care what the show, what the business, what the location — they expect to be delighted,” he said. “They want more than they’ve ever wanted. They want connections. They want cool experiences. They want networking.”

Shows like HLTH, Shoptalk, eMerge, ComplexCon, and Money20/20 didn’t exist 10 years ago, he said, and they have been major disruptors. These shows offer the kind of experiences attendees crave. The competition is coming from people who aren’t “event people” — they are people, he added, who are trying to solve a problem.

Trickle-Down Effect of High Costs

Prediction No. 2: Costs are getting out of control at the same time that organizers are being pressured to do more cool stuff, he said, and that means higher expenses and things that are harder to execute. “I think you’ll see big Tier 1 shows decide, ‘My customers will go anywhere with me,’” he said, “and ‘that my brand is big enough that my 26,000 or 9,000 attendees’” will follow wherever the event is being held.

Organizers “will realize that ‘I can’t both control costs and at the same time deliver the experience I want in this environment. I gotta try something else,’” he said, meaning they will bring their events to second- and third-tier destinations. The bolder ones may say they don’t want to hold their event in a traditional event venue — they will be asking: “‘Can I pull this off in an outdoor venue? Can I pull this off in some place completely different?’ I think that’s coming.”

Topalian said vendor relationships also are changing for the better. “I think you’re going to see a new era in partnership, whether it’s between our core decorators, our marketing agencies, our AV companies, where together we’re crafting an experience and we’re deciding what can we spend, what don’t we need to spend money on. I see so many smarter conversations happening around the Clarion boardrooms with our partners,” he said, around where the money is spent.

Directed Networking

Prediction No. 3: We’ve got to get better at helping people make connections at events because they are increasingly expecting that, Topalian said. “I think we have to stop thinking through the lens of ‘How do I monetize this?’ I’m not saying to give it away, but the second we start thinking about ‘How do I get an exhibitor to give me money for this?’ we are not really solving the core of the problem, which is: What is this valuable attendee here looking for? What do they want out of this event?”

Topalian’s prediction is that this is going to get solved “at scale, in a big way, but it ain’t [by] anyone who’s here,” he said. “I think it’s coming from somewhere else. I think this is a massive opportunity.” When questioned at the end of the session by Lippman about who will solve for this, Topalian said he doesn’t think “the tech and the AI piece of it and the predictive ability” resides within the industry. He also thinks there is a “trust gap” — attendees want to have productive meetings, but they don’t really want someone telling them who they should meet with. They want “an elegant solution,” he said, that actually gets them what they are looking for.

‘A Source of Trustworthy Clarity’

Prediction No. 4 concerns deep fake content. “The world is becoming a very mistrustful place. There is a lot of misinformation and there’s an awful lot of opinion that isn’t healthy. I believe this has created an enormous trust opportunity for us,” Topalian said. “Our shows are becoming a source of trustworthy clarity. What you learn at an event is something that you can take back to your teams.”

Part two of this, he added, is e-learning. “It’s big. In one of our markets, we’ve invested very heavily in e-learning. It’s a show that has a lot of learning as part of it, but we’ve taken it — and we haven’t hurt the show at all — online. We ultimately think that the e-learning business may be bigger than the trade-show business,” he said, at least in this particular sector. “That’s an opportunity [that’s] going to get bigger if you embrace it. If you don’t embrace it, you’re going to watch who does.”

Change Your Revenue Model

Topalian’s last prediction is one that he thinks will have the greatest impact on the events industry, and it relates to seeing your attendees as fans. The audience has been a forgotten part of your revenue mix, he said — we’ve missed that in B2B. “So what does everyone say they want? They want meetings. They want networking. They want epic parties. They want all of these cool things,” he said. The thing is: “They will pay for it.” He encouraged the audience to unlock their version of a fan paying top dollar for a front-row seat to see their favorite performer.

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“I think in 10 years, a successful B2B show should be making 40-60 percent of its money from fans, consumers, attendees — whatever you choose to call them,” he said.” And I know that doesn’t work for everybody, but I think it will work for many and most.”

The challenge, Topalian added, is that “you can’t just start charging $2,000 for a pipe-and-drape experience.” He reminded the audience of the conferences that have come on the scene in the last 10 years that have “gotten really big and successful and disrupted greatly — they were built that way,” he said. He gave the example of Insure Tech Connect, a conference Clarion acquired in 2019 from Jay Weintraub, who had “built it that way: It was always going to include a very high-touch shock and awe experience, it was always going to have great food, incredible content — it was never going to be a pipe-and-drape show, and it was always going to be expensive to attend.” That approach has been successful for that event, he added. Clarion has not relied on sponsorships to make the numbers work.

Topalian’s ECEF session

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.

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