The Show Must Go On

Show managers with events planned in the waning days of October knew they would have to do something as Hurricane Sandy threatened the Northeast the last weekend of the month.

They just weren’t sure what it was they would have to do—or when.

In response to calls from anxious attendees and exhibitors, affirmations were sent throughout the previous week—the show would go on, they said—but by late Saturday, the reality of the situation unfolding in front of them forced them to make changes, and quick. It was clear they’d have to postpone or cancel.

With tens of millions of dollars ultimately at stake, hosts were preparing behind the scenes for the worst almost a week in advance, despite the stolid front they put on. When forecasts solidified, they snapped into action.

ISC East, a security-based tradeshow scheduled to open Oct. 30 at the Jacob K. Javits Center in New York City, was the largest event affected, with more than 300 exhibitors scheduled to attend.

Ed Several, manager of the Reed Exhibitions show, had pulled together a crisis management team by the Wednesday before the storm, formulating a predetermined communication plan should the worst happen. The group launched a massive campaign via website, e-mail, text message, recorded phone message and live calls once the decision came down Saturday afternoon. An hour and a half later, everyone had been reached.

“Obviously, we wish the storm didn’t have the impact that it did,” says Several. “But what we’re proud of is that we were able to communicate early and communicate meaningful information.”

MediaNext, a magazine industry tradeshow hosted by EXPO sister publication FOLIO:, was to take place Oct. 29-31 at the Marriot Marquis in Times Square. That is, until Kerry Smith, president of Red 7 Media, made the call to postpone early Sunday morning.

Smith’s team had worked out contingency plans ahead of time, so they were able to announce plans for a rescheduled event at the same time they announced the postponement. Databases, e-mail verbiage, phone numbers and calling lists were all in place by Friday afternoon.

“As we all left the office on Friday, we were intending that the show was going to go on, but we were preparing ourselves to make the call if we had to,” Smith says.

Michael Robertson, president and CEO of the Specialty Graphic Imaging Assoctiaion (SGIA), didn’t have a show in Sandy’s path, but he has dealt with worst-case scenarios just like those involving Sandy before.

The 2001 SGIA Annual Meeting was to open in Anaheim, Calif., Sept. 19, but the air travel shutdown after the Sept. 11 attacks forced him to think quickly.

“I was on the phone with someone doing IT work who was really close, and heard and felt the plane hit the Pentagon,” Robertson recalls. “As we watched it unfold, frankly, our thoughts weren’t about the show.”
It was days before Robertson, then an executive vice president with the SGIA, realized his Anaheim event would need to be cancelled.

“[At that point,] it was all hands on deck to use every mechanism we had to get the word out,” he says of the attempts to communicate with more than 15,000 attendees and 500 exhibitors.
Uninsured, the event ultimately was a $3 million loss.

Four years later, the 2005 SGIA annual meeting was scheduled to start on Sept. 28 in New Orleans—a month after Hurricane Katrina flooded the city. Robertson was forced to cancel once again.

The SGIA’s hand was forced in each case—“We didn’t have any choice,” Robertson emphasizes—but the show’s response was commendable. Rather than simply regrouping for the next year, a rational reaction, Robertson’s team launched supplementary events in their place.

In 2001, an online virtual tradeshow was held in mid-October, and a smaller event aimed at startups in the emerging technologies market was put together in Phoenix for December 2005.

The former has since become an annual staple of the SGIA, while the latter was key in sustaining what, at the time, was a fragile market. “For part of our community, it was OK to wait a year,” Robertson says. “For the other part, they couldn’t wait three months—they would have been out of business. They still talk about how valuable it was for them to get through that difficult time.”

For shows like ISC East and MediaNext, it remains to be seen whether their decisions will pay off as SGIA’s have. They can only go off of the immediate reactions they’ve received so far. Most attendees and exhibitors have been understanding; some, especially those stuck in New York, have been less so.

In the case of postponed shows, registration fees can usually be applied to the show’s makeup date, but refunds are harder to come by. Meanwhile, event cancellation insurance typically covers the registration costs for exhibitors and attendees in shows that won’t be rescheduled. In the aftermath of the storm, some shows provided complimentary services to ease the burden. ISC East, for example, offered freight and storage services for the exhibitors who had already moved in.

Many are still stuck with travel expenses they can’t recoup, however.

“In retrospect, maybe we should have made the call earlier, but we didn’t know what we were dealing with until fairly late into the weekend,” Smith says. “It got to a certain point where we had no choice about what to do.

“You can control what you can control, and what we could control was what we were communicating to our constituents. And that we put in place before we left the office on Friday.”

Posted by Michael Rondon

Michael Rondon is a senior editor for Expo. Reach him @Mike_Rondon or View all articles by Michael Rondon →