CEO Carina Bauer on the Difficult Decision to Cancel IMEX

Author: Michelle Russell       


Attendees and exhibitors fill Messe Frankfurt for IMEX 2019. The annual event will not take place in 2020 amid concerns over COVID-19. (Courtesy IMEX Group)

Takeaways from IMEX Group CEO Carina Bauer:

  • When considering whether to cancel an event, keep in contact with local health and other government officials so you don’t have to cancel at the last minute.
  • Offer refunds to exhibitors and registrants if you do cancel.
  • Consider how to take content from your canceled event and create content online for your audience.

Citing a growing probability of factors outside their control — including a potential ban on large gatherings by the German health minister — forcing them to cancel IMEX Frankfurt at the last minute, IMEX Group Chairman Ray Bloom and CEO Carina Bauer announced March 11 that they would cancel the 2020 event, scheduled for May 12–14. Bauer spoke to Convene about the “devastating decision.”

First, I thought your cancellation notice was emotionally intelligent, and perhaps that is due in part to IMEX being a “family business.”

At the end of the day, it is a family business and we have a small, tight team and this is all we do. And whilst we wanted to provide clarity as to the sort of hard facts and the reasons, we wanted to write it from the heart. Because we are also a trade show for the industry and industry’s really suffering at the moment. So, it did come from the heart and I’m pleased that that came through in it. We wanted people to know it was us — Ray and Carina — writing to them.


Carina Bauer

You are among many others that have had to make the painful decision to cancel your event. Tell us about the timing for your decision.

We could see even at the end of last week or over the weekend that there was an increasing danger of the health authorities not allowing us to put on the event. And although we were in touch with them via Messe Frankfurt and we weren’t quite hearing that exactly, we could see that it was coming down the line. And our great concern was them closing us down at the last minute — what has happened over the past month with other events closing at the last minute when they’re just about to open. That is doubly devastating because all that effort and all that money that has been expended. It cannot be recovered. And we just couldn’t do that to the industry. We didn’t know necessarily that the health authorities would move so fast in Germany.

And then, at the same time, we were looking at it and saying, our industry is hurting at the moment. They’re going to then invest in the show and come to the show — if we say the show is on, then we need to be able to deliver a minimum number of buyers to them. We simply couldn’t do that. Up until about a week ago, registrations were pretty good, actually, on the buyer side. Asia was obviously down, but pretty much everywhere else they were holding up really well. But then over the past week we could all see corporate travel bans coming in, and it was just starting to escalate.

And if buyers were allowed to come, would they be worried about coming? And then is that responsible as well? Our biggest concern really was don’t put the exhibitors and the industry under more strain. We could see people were about to sign contracts for stands and for hotel rooms and all sorts of things. Our conscience would not allow us to do that. That was really why we made the decision today. And I think it really clarified to us two things: the kind of immense and complex ecosystem that exists in order to put on a trade show or a large event and how long the timelines are.

That’s probably something we may take for granted.

You’re exactly right. I was thinking we’ve probably got until the end of March to see how things go and see what the world situation is. But things moved very quickly. Ten days ago, we issued a statement that we were confidently planning a good show. And at that point we hadn’t had any substantial impact and that was correct. I think the situation in Germany was pretty different then, and we thought it’s one thing to cancel and another to have to cancel a week before the show.

We’ve been having regular calls with Messe Frankfurt, the German Convention Bureau, and the local health authorities. And everybody’s been trying their best, really. But the situation over the past 10 days has changed and just become clearer and clearer. It is a devastating decision for us, but it’s also the right decision. For the industry, and for us. At the end of the day, when you’re a trade-show organizer, you’re only as good as your last show. We need each of our shows to be of value to all our stakeholders. And it’s our stakeholders who are suffering — our exhibitors are the destinations, the cities, the hotels, the centers, the airlines, cruise lines. I mean these, these are the businesses that are really struggling and we didn’t want to put them under more strain.

How are you handling refunds?

So we’ve already gone out to all our exhibitors and told them that, depending on whether they paid us in full or part, they will get a full refund or if they prefer they can obviously carry it over to 2021. [IMEX America is actually a separate company, so they can’t apply it to that event.] And the same obviously if they purchased any advertising or sponsorship or anything of that nature. Some of our hosted buyers have purchased their own flights to come to the show and then we refund them on site. They can obviously submit that for refund immediately. And we’ve already given them all that information of how they do that and we’re intending to process those refunds very quickly.

The hosted buyer face-to-face meetings are obviously integral to IMEX. Can that be replicated online?

I think we all exist to bring people together face to face — business opportunities, education, networking, and no more so than IMEX for sure. With the hosted buyer program, the systems that we have in place in order to create those thousands of appointments that take place face to face, can also, we believe, be put to use, to connect buyers and suppliers online during this period. What we’re looking at right now is how can we utilize those systems we’ve got. Our system is bespoke to us, and is pretty sophisticated because buyers can go through the exhibits directory, they can choose the exhibitors they want to meet, and they can make an appointment with them.

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And then the exhibitors are able to communicate via our system. The exhibitors can see quite a lot of demographic information about the buyers and they can also exchange documents and RFPs. So that is all that is all available and in place as well. We’re looking at how can we make that work if it’s just online. The one thing I would say is I think it will prove how valuable face to face is.I think it will be an interesting experiment for us and for the industry as well. Maybe it will teach us new things about what we can do better in the future as well. We’re open to that.

And then, of course, we’ve got a lot of content. We were just about to launch our educational program with 200 speakers and sessions and that is all ready to go. So we are going to be talking to a lot of those speakers and looking at what can we do to make that available to the industry. In addition to that, there are very many things that take place around the show and we are trying to consider all of those — from the awards that are given out to press conferences that are held — from the perspective of what can we do online in this period. Hopefully it will be something of value to people and that’s really all we want to do — provide as much value in this period as we can.

Do you anticipate this will create greater pent-up demand to meet at IMEX America in Las Vegas in September?

Well, I hope so. I think that there will be a pent-up desire for the industry to get together. When we come out of this period, the industry is going to need each other more than ever and certainly we want to do whatever we can do to aid that recovery. And then also working with the trade associations in the immediate future as well. Our commitment to the business events industry and to seeing us through this and coming out the other side in a positive is total. And we’ll just do everything we can to support that. We really hope IMEX America will play a strong part in that.

In your mind, what might that recovery look like?

It’s great question because we don’t have a crystal ball. We don’t know how long it will last. Look, it’s very painful for the whole industry at the moment. One of my concerns, and I know other leaders in the industry are really thinking about this, is those smaller suppliers, freelancers, contractors who’ve really cannot sustain a long, devastating phase like this. Ultimately, we know that this is going to be very deep, but it’s also going to be temporary. We don’t how long, but it will be temporary. So the fundamentals of our business — of people meeting — I think haven’t changed and won’t change. And I think people in all industries are going to want to gather together, regroup, have those industry events and trade shows.

I don’t think that stops, but of course, if this tips us into a global recession, we have that to think about as well in terms of the investment that people make. And I do think as an industry we’re going to have to look at how we hold our events and the health and safety and that aspect of them. For years, we’ve talked about health and safety in terms of security and terrorism. This is a whole different type of health and safety we need to contend with. And I think we, in the recovery phase, are going to have to be very upfront about that type of thing because we do not want people to be fearful of coming to an event — we have to recognize that that could happen.

People know that in order to fight things like disease, they need to meet face to face — we’re part of the solution for so many of the world’s problems. But I think we have to be realistic that we’re probably not going to just bounce back to how it was last year, next year. You know, this might take a while and we’re going to have to work hard to convince people to come back to their events and that it’s safe to do so and it’s valuable to do so. This happened a little bit in the financial crisis, when people canceled events for financial reasons and then they tried all these different hybrid events and online and that did cause a massive pent-up demand for meeting face to face because it’s just not as good — it’s a great supplement but we know it’s not as good. So I do think there’ll be demand, but it might look a little bit different.

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.

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