New Dates, Formats and Protocols: Changes in Store for 2021 Construction Equipment Trade Shows

Aerial view of World of Concrete 2020

Sunny skies at World of Concrete 2020. Source: World of Concrete

Construction equipment trade shows have taken a pandemic gut-punch. After ConExpo, which closed a day early in March because of the rapidly accelerating coronavirus, the U.S. trade show landscape was laid bare during the rest of 2020. The two major equipment shows slated for this fall – MINExpo and GIE + Expo – were pushed back a year, and countless dealer and OEM-specific events went virtual.

Construction's 2020-2021 Disrupted trade show calendarIt now appears the upheaval will last well into next year, with shows scrambling to come up with alternative dates and, in some cases, venues.

“We had already assigned more than 75 percent of the space before we left the 2020 show,” says Jackie James, group director, World of Concrete, which recently announced it would move from January to June 8-10.

Both safety and business were concerns, says James. “Our customers were really split,” she says. Some were all for maintaining the January date and others were hesitant because of safety concerns, she says. “Ultimately we decided that June would be the right decision because corporate travel bans and Covid-related concerns would hopefully be alleviated by then,” she says. The show had 54,000 attendees and 1,310 exhibitors in 2020.

“We were fortunate to be able to reschedule because those events that had been scheduled for the first quarter were trying to back up and reschedule late April through June,” says Robert Carpenter, Underground Construction Technology program director.

UCT, which has a 110, 000-square-foot exhibit area, moved from January to May 18-20 in Nashville. “The truth is that nobody knows if we’ll be able to do this; it’s just the best information we have at this time,” Carpenter says. “We have a lot of things going on, and we don’t want to go virtual if we don’t have to.”

The American Rental Association was closely watching the potential pandemic impacts on its show, slated for February in New Orleans. The ARA Show typically has 750 to 800 exhibitors, and some were concerned about the safety of a show occurring a week after Mardi Gras and whether there would be enough attendance.

“It was becoming evident, particularly as the Covid-19 numbers were ticking up again in September, that we were swimming upstream,” relates Beth Hoff Blackmer, ARA president, and president of Aspen Rent-All. ARA pushed back the show to Oct. 18-20 and moved it to Las Vegas, a switch that has repercussions into the next year since it prompted cancellation of its 2022 show in Anaheim.

No easy process

In early September, the Associated Equipment Distributors announced one of the first show postponements, moving its Summit annual meeting and Condex trade show from January to March 29-31.

“We’re a small show, but in the dealer world, we are the show,” says Brian McGuire, AED executive director. McGuire likens changing the meeting and 200-exhibitor show to turning around an aircraft carrier. “You can’t just turn on a dime,” he says.

Show organizers had to make difficult choices. First there’s the go/no-go decision. Will exhibitors agree to the shift? Can they get a space that at least kinda-sorta looks like what they had before? Will the show attract the type and number of visitors the exhibitors desire? Can the venue accommodate them?

All of that is added to the normal details of registration, hotels, transportation logistics and educational sessions. “You had all of that solved once,” Carpenter says, “and now you have to do it again. But we only had one exhibitor tell us that the new dates didn’t work for them.”

Then there’s the additional pandemic-related safety protocols to implement, which vary by locale. These can dictate how many people can be transported on a shuttle, how wide the aisles should be and even whether a show can meet indoors.

For example, the National Demolition Association is currently still planning to meet March 3-4 in New Orleans, but “we will have to do this entirely outdoors if we go forward,” says Jeff Lambert, NDA executive director.

“We’re probably better set up to do something outdoors than most other trade shows because we have a component called Live Demolition that’s always been outdoors and that showcases large equipment,” Lambert says. “We’re looking at doing a similar type format over two days as opposed to one.”

“It’s going to be a thorough effort to set up our safety procedures,” Lambert adds. “Our intent is to try to figure out a way to do this.”

AED attendees will go through daily health screenings and temperature checks. To accommodate social distancing, general and educational sessions will take up more space, attendees will be asked to exit rooms in a prescribed way and only four can sit at a banquet table. The Condex buffet lunch is now a box lunch.

“Things will be different for sure, but we’ll still have the great programming that our attendees have come to expect,” McGuire says. “There’s no substitute for walking the floor if you’re looking to pick up a new line or meet with a new financing company.”

“It’s a big deal for us to connect with our vendors at the show,” says Steve Meadows, vice president of operations for The Berry Companies, a Wichita, Kansas-based dealer who also serves as the AED’s board finance chair.

“It’s a good time to kind of clear the air on items and negotiate new terms, and it’s tough to do that on Zoom, especially if you’re trying to establish new relationships,” adds Ron Barlet, AED board chair and president of Bejac Corporation in Placentia, California.

What now?

The shows lend a cadence to construction equipment marketing. Without them occupying the same place on the 2021 calendar, OEMs are evaluating how they can reach the audiences the shows provide.

Even with the changes “we’re still in a lot of the usual places in 2021,” says Paul Parker, of Volvo Construction Equipment global exhibition and events. In the U.S., these include the World of Asphalt, National Demolition Association, the ARA Show, MINExpo and The Utility Expo (formerly ICUEE). In fact, Volvo plans to showcase the production models of its electric compact machines at The Utility Expo.

“We still see a real value in being face-to-face with people,” Parker says. “For all the changes that are taking place, this is still a relationship business, and people still want to be in front of things. We can show things on a screen all day, but people still want to sit in the cab of a machine.”

Doosan Infracore North America is also planning to exhibit at shows it normally attends, says Aaron Kleingartner, marketing manager. “If the show happens, we will be there. Shows are important for us to visit with prospective customers, build our brand and showcase our equipment.”

World of Concrete, the National Demolition Association and the ARA Show would be on Vacuworx’s normal show calendar, but it’s decided to make some changes. “We’ve had a lot of discussion about how to move forward,” says Paula Bell, Vacuworx director of marketing. Among the questions: Will people travel to shows? Will they be the right people and is it worth the money?

Bell says Vacuworx has opted for a small 10×10 booth at World of Concrete instead of its larger demo area. “We wanted to maintain a presence and will use the booth to focus on a market we haven’t really targeted at this show up to this point, the Precast/Prestressed Concrete Institute.”

Two big shows for Mecalac are the AED and ARA. “AED launches the year for us,” says Peter Bigwood, general manager of Mecalac North America. The March date won’t have that same impact, however, so Mecalac plans to have a suite but won’t exhibit at Condex, AED’s trade show.

ARA was another year-starter for Mecalac. Now that it’s in October, not so much. To compensate for the lost face-to-face opportunity ARA gave it at the beginning of the year, Mecalac is planning to host a rental dealer event at its Boston headquarters in spring.

And Mecalac may eventually expand to The Utility Show and GIE + Expo, particularly since both have demonstration areas. “Mecalac is all about showing the unique capabilities of our machines,” Bigwood says. “There’s nothing like seeing it with your own eyes. You just don’t get that with other avenues.”

As of now, JCB North America still plans to attend the ARA Show and GIE + Expo, says Ashby Graham, general manager of marketing. But since the ARA Show is a buying show, JCB is examining how it can best share its offerings to rental dealers in the first quarter.


Cat Expo Live virtual trade show

Cat Expo Live, which aired in September, was billed as Cat’s first North American virtual trade show. Source: Caterpillar.

In the meantime…

“We can’t just keep doing what we’ve always kind of always done,” says Pam Veiock, JCB events and community relations manager. JCB is looking at a variety of things that “we wouldn’t have normally employed because we’d be seeing everyone in person.”

“We’re looking at things differently,” says Bell, of Vacuworx. “How do we get to these people? How do we try to engage with them in a way that it can lead to a two-way conversation? We’re looking at a lot more digital, both in-house and with our partners.” Also under consideration: road shows that take the equipment directly to the customer.

Virtual events are becoming standard. Caterpillar conducted the Cat Expo Live in September, billed as its first North American virtual trade show. Volvo conducted a series of Facebook Lives on wheel loader tips and tricks this summer and fall in which product experts went over the machines and answered questions. “A lot of people are not necessarily joining us live but watching it later,” says Meg Christenson, Volvo CE director of content marketing and public relations.

“We’re looking at these virtual events as a tool to tell our story,” says Dave Foster, vice president of marketing and communications, Volvo CE North America. “It will be exciting to see how things transpire in the next 12 to 18 months and what’s going to come out of this that may be different in how we interact with a customer.”

JCB recently conducted a virtual experience with its Fastrac 8000 Series agricultural tractor. “We hope to build on that platform and make it more interactive and engaging,” Graham says. Important post-event measurements included the number of visitors, how much time they spent, where they went and where they came from.

“We wanted to have that trade show experience of seeing and learning about the product, talking to factory reps,” JCB’s Veiock says. “It was interesting to see how willing people were to engage in that way. It was surprising in a good way. We definitely have plans on doing that on our construction side.”

And several OEMs argue that product launches are not dependent on show dates anyway. “We don’t define our product development life cycle based on a show date,” Kleingartner says. “What typically happens is that we will use the closest show to a product launch to showcase a model. I don’t think it will really change our plans from a launch perspective.”

Re-evaluations coming

Trade shows have significant budgets, which also raises the question as to whether they are the best use of limited resources.

“These discussions have been put on fast-forward,” Parker says. “It’s a good time to ask, do these really contribute to what we’re trying to achieve?”

While some question whether shows will maintain their impact, Bell still believes firmly in their effectiveness. “Our messaging is so much more powerful in person, and we get scale from being able to talk to so many people,” she says. “It’s going to be hard to replace that.

“That doesn’t mean they won’t be re-evaluated, however.”

It’s not just the cost of the show balanced by leads and immediate ROI, says Kleingartner. “There’s a lot of brand value in these shows that is hard to measure. And there’s a negative perception if you’re not there.”

But will people come?

Equipment World reached out to three contractors who regularly attend the World of Concrete. With its new June date, the show will take place at the height of construction’s busy season. Were they still planning on coming?

The answer was a qualified yes.

“We’re definitely still going,” says Alex Roberts with S.A.S. Contracting in Bethel, Connecticut. The June timing actually has its benefits since his daughter skis competitively in the winter, and the new date won’t conflict with any races. “This actually creates a time that I can create a bit of a vacation come June.”

Jim Schier with Houston-based Schier Construction also plans to attend, but he expects a reduced show. “I always look forward to it, but bringing people is not an option that time of year,” he says.

Brian Winkler of Wm. Winkler Company in Spokane, Washington, agrees. “We’ll have some of our leadership people go, but we won’t have the attendance we normally do.”

ARA members standing by construction equipment while talking

When ARA asked its members about the possibility of a virtual show, “the overwhelming feedback was please don’t do that to us,” says Tony Conant, ARA CEO. Photo: ARA

Building on the past

“The fact that we’re even having a show in 2021 is encouraging to a lot of our exhibitors,” says Steve Mau, president of Brainerd General Rental and ARA special interst group chair. “They thought we might just pull out of 2021 altogether.”

And ARA members were loud and clear: they want the whole package, all of the educational sessions, networking opportunities and award ceremonies.

“When we asked about the possibility of a virtual show, the overwhelming feedback was, please don’t do that to us,” says Tony Conant, ARA CEO.

But there’s still the first-quarter gap, especially since ARA is known as a buying show; so the association is working on creating a members-only portal where manufacturers can present any specials they would normally have talked about at the February show. “Most of us on the equipment side have had a good year, and we’re going to buy,” says ARA’s Blackmer.

Volvo plans to share a compaction concept – something it usually wouldn’t do – at World of Asphalt, now scheduled for March 9-11 in Atlanta, although show organizer Association of Equipment Manufacturers said it was “carefully evaluating several options” in an Oct. 19th letter to exhibitors.

World of Concrete’s new June date will offer warm weather, “and we’re exploring fun ways to engage customers in unique outdoor areas,” James says. And the May weather in Nashville will be more enticing to some UCT attendees than January, Carpenter says.

One beneficiary of this fruit basket upset may be the biennial Utility Expo (formerly ICUEE), unchanged and scheduled for Sept. 28-30 in Louisville, Kentucky. “We’re in a fortunate position because it’s hard to imagine being a full year out and being in this same position,” says John Rozum, show director with sponsor AEM. The show is also rolling out a new contiguous 1.3 million-square-foot footprint, enabled by the demolition of the former Cardinal Stadium next to the Kentucky Exposition Center.

“By having additional outdoor space we’ll be able to ensure that more of the companies that want to dig and get into the dirt will be able to do so,” Rozum says.

All of the reshuffling has reinforced to Mau how important the ARA Show is to vendors. “It’s a big part of their planning, production cycle and numbers,” says Mau. “I wondered if trade shows were a dying breed, and this has reinforced the fact that the show is important to these folks.”

“I think if anything the value of face-to-face connection has been realized more than ever,”  James says. “There is pent-up demand today for live interaction and to get back to some sense of normalcy. …We think World of Concrete will be more welcome than ever.”

“Anytime there’s a major change in the industry, you just have to adapt,” says Parker. “This just happens to be the mother of all changes.”