Through the winter and well into the spring, organizers of the North American Commercial Vehicle (NACV) show, the trucking industry’s largest, gave every indication it would return to the in-person stage in late September at Atlanta’s cavernous Georgia World Congress Center. That was until May 4, when Hannover Fairs USA and Newcom Media, the show’s co-organizers, canceled the event, citing a reluctance of truckers to travel and congregate indoors with more than 5,000 participants.

The show will not go on this year either in person or virtually, said Ed Nichols, vice president for events at Hannover Fairs USA, a unit of Hannover, Germany’s, Deutsche Messe.

The decision will have consequences. The 2019 NACV show (the event alternates each year between Atlanta and Germany) drew 473 exhibitors and more than 8,400 attendees. Exhibitor interest was not the issue in postponing the Sept. 28-30 event, Nichols said. Rather, it was participant concerns over their employees’ health and safety, and attendance forecasts that were not living up to Hannover’s scaled-back expectations. According to Hannover’s data, NACV could expect 72% of its traditional audience at the 2021 event.

The trucking industry “remains reluctant to attend in-person events in the numbers our exhibiting companies expect,” Nichols said. “This is the result of not only conversations but also focus groups and surveys.”

Meanwhile, the National Private Truck Council (NPTC), a trade group representing the private fleet operations of some of the country’s best-known brands, was facing its own fork in the road. 

NPTC had already scrubbed its 2020 annual conference rather than hold it virtually. Its 2021 conference that was scheduled for April in Cincinnati was canceled late last year due to state and local government health restrictions. The next rescheduled date would be NPTC’s last conference gasp for 2021; if the event didn’t come off, NPTC, which refuses to hold virtual industry conferences due to content and confidentiality issues, would have to wait until 2022.

In January, Gary Petty, NPTC’s longtime president and CEO, and its board decided to schedule the event for mid-June, a risky move considering uncertainty remained over what the country’s health and safety landscape would look like at midyear. 

NPTC was also going out well before nearly every other trade group. According to Petty, NPTC didn’t want its industry conference to conflict with its annual safety event already set for Orlando in September.

So far, the gamble has paid off. 

In the wake of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) mid-May advisory to lift masking and social distancing restrictions on Americans who’ve been fully vaccinated, the state of Ohio cleared in-person conferences such as the NPTC event to go forward. Confirmation activity has been brisk, though Petty said attendance likely will be 25% to 30% below historical levels.

The bridge year

Welcome to the bridge year, a moment in time when those running the in-person conferences that have long been a core part of the industry are wondering whether it’s safe to go back in the water. 

NPTC excepted, most of the spring conferences, which will lead into the July Fourth holiday, will stay virtual because many corporate travel budgets have not thawed out, and because it would be problematic for groups to pivot from their virtual conference strategies made many months prior.

The rubber will hit the road right around Labor Day, the traditional launch to the fall conference season. 

Home Delivery World, which until the pandemic hit was arguably the hottest show in all of transport and logistics, isn’t waiting until after the holiday. It will hold its event in  Philadelphia on Sept. 1-2. Later in the month, two venerable annual events — the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals’ (CSCMP) EDGE conference in Atlanta and the Intermodal Expo, scheduled for Long Beach, California — are expected to be held in person.

It will not be business as usual, however. 

Besides the lowered attendance figures — which everyone expected — session sites and exhibit halls will need to be reconfigured to balance the need for attendee and exhibitor engagement with health imperatives. Masks will be required of attendees at the NPTC show, an edict of the trade group and its hotel and convention center partners, Petty said. The group’s protocols will exceed what CDC has recommended and what Ohio law requires, he added.

Continued curbs on international air passenger travel will also be a headwind. Joni Casey, president and CEO of the Intermodal Association of North America (IANA), which for decades has put on the Intermodal Expo either by itself or with partners, said exhibitors, attendees and sponsors have expressed initial interest in being there in person. However, there have so far been few international participants, which Casey attributed to the tougher requirements that California has in place for people entering the state from foreign origins.

SMC3, a less-than-truckload trade group that puts on two highly regarded annual conferences each winter and summer, said its June event will be digital. 

“We expect that many companies will begin traveling to conferences again in 2021 but that they will be more selective with who, and how many, employees participate, at least initially,” said Brian Thompson, SMC3’s chief commercial officer. 

It could take two years for conference travel patterns to return to pre-COVID 19 normalcy, Thompson said. The group’s winter conference, held each January in its hometown of Atlanta, is scheduled to be in person next year.

FreightWaves will join the in-person party on Nov. 9 when it begins a three-day event, F3, that will be styled after the enormously popular South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas.

The event, to be held in the company’s hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee, will alternate between indoor and outdoor venues, and be spread out over a large part of the city so as to allay any health and safety concerns, said Craig Fuller, FreightWaves’ founder and CEO. There will also be onsite COVID-19 testing for those who have not been fully vaccinated, Fuller said.

Getting back out there

There is little doubt that people are chomping at the bit to get in front of each other. “Every single client wants to attend in-person events in the fall,” said Caroline Lyle, president of marketing communications firm Virago Marketing and a longtime transportation road warrior. 

Lyle said, however, that states and hospitality businesses might still have restrictions on how folks are allowed to gather, which could force conferences to move their venues to different states or remain virtual.

Yet there is also a sense of virtual fatigue among some organizations. Nichols said NACV exhibitors and attendees are weary of the digital dance and have been disappointed with the results that digital shows were delivering. 

As a result, an overwhelming number of both NACV constituencies said they would rather the show be canceled than held digitally. Lyle has seen attendance for recent virtual events down by as much as 50%, with vendors composing the bulk of those that have backed away.

As with other industries, the transport and logistics conference landscape is bifurcated. There are educational conferences like CSCMP whose agenda is session-driven with almost no exhibit presence. Then there is NACV, where exhibits are the bread-and-butter, and where replicating the deep value of the in-person experience online is a nonstarter. 

“Virtual does not work in our culture,” said Nichols, noting that the lasting relationships carefully and subtly crafted through years of face-to-face interaction do not translate well at all to the virtual world. “We have a saying that `you must be present to win,’” he said.

Groups whose conferences have major exhibit footprints have been challenged to persuade buyers to commit millions of dollars to equipment and technology without first kicking the tires in person. A litmus test of that notion came when the material handling trade group MHI held its biennial event, ProMat, digitally in mid-April.

In normal times, ProMat draws around 50,000 attendees and deep-pocketed vendors pitching high-ticket merchandise. The event is always held at Chicago’s McCormick Place because it is considered the one venue capable of accommodating the off-the-charts demand for the expensive and large-size investments.

Daniel McKinnon, MHI’s executive vice president of exhibitions, said the goal of the virtual show was to expose the manufacturing and supply chain communities to the latest solutions and innovations. McKinnon said that “nothing can compare to the experience created by a large trade show.”

Given that, MHI focused on the “sponsor-driven education and product demos so we were able to overcome potential challenges by providing attendees with the information they are seeking,” he said.

Ironically, ProMat’s sister show, Modex, was the last major trade show, perhaps in any industry, that was held before the pandemic shut down the country and much of the world. The March 2020 event in Atlanta still drew a good-size crowd. But the absence of European and Asian vendors and attendees was portentous. The exhibit hall at the Georgia World Congress Center was pockmarked with dozens of absent spaces where international vendors normally would have been.

As for the next Modex, scheduled for March 2022 in Atlanta, McKinnon said, “Our floor plan is over 95% full.”