A look ahead to ConExpo and IFPE

By Lucy Barnard26 September 2022

Although its organizers didn’t realise it at the time ConExpo-Con/Agg and IFPE 2020 were some of the last major industry events to take place before COVID locked down the world three years ago. Diesel Progress’ Lucy Barnard asks the shows’ organizers how the pandemic will change North America’s largest trade show

Crowds throng across the Silver Lot at The Las Vegas Convention Center during ConExpo 2020. Photo: ConExpo

Putting together a trade show like ConExpo is all about planning – selling space to exhibitors, sometimes years in advance, orchestrating a prolonged marketing campaign to build up momentum and coming up with an interesting and useful programme of talks and educational events.

But what if the last time you undertook all that planning, North America’s largest trade show was overtaken by a global pandemic which resulted in some exhibitors and visitors pulling out at the last minute, overseas visitors scrambling to return home before the imposition of travel bans and the decision to end proceedings a day early?

“I feel like we’re all a little wiser and with more grey hair than three years ago,” says Dana Wuesthoff, vice president of exhibitions and event services at the Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM) and the woman in charge of organizing the massive triennial show.

“Things that I was very sure about last cycle, I learned not to be quite so sure about. I would have never said that we would have a, well we didn’t know it at the time, but a global pandemic going on.”

The show started on March 10, just five days after Nevada declared its first suspected case of the virus and continued amid a backdrop of increasing global panic with a number of international exhibitors reducing or cancelling their presence.

On March 11, the World Health Organization declared COVID a global pandemic and by March 12, US President Donald Trump announced sweeping travel restrictions prompting AEM to reluctantly close a day early.

“There were a whole lot of cancellations right before the show which led to a bit of chaos,” agrees John Rozum, organizer of the International Fluid Power Exposition (IFPE) which takes place alongside ConExpo at the Las Vegas Convention Center. “I guess that’s what happens when you’re the last show before COVID. There was a lot of excitement that we have no intention of repeating this time around.”

Wuesthoff points out that despite a number of last-minute cancellations from the likes of Swedish OEM Scania, hydraulics specialist Enerpac, Dutch tire manufacturer Magna Tyres and Italian aerial lift specialist Platform Basket, the amount of space that was cancelled at the ConExpo stood at just 66,950 net sq. ft. out of a total of around 2.5 million sq. ft., representing less than 2.5% of the total. And of that, the company went on to re-sell 15,500 sq. ft. Moreover, although Swedish manufacturer Volvo CE was one of the biggest names to withdraw its participation at the show, its 60,000 sq. ft. stand remained open to visitors, manned by locally-hired temp staff. 

For IFPE, which traditionally enjoys a larger international presence, the show was harder hit by cancellations. Danish manufacturer Danfoss, German engineer Bosch Rexroth, US-Irish power management company Eaton, and US manufacturer Parker Hannifin amongst those pulling out just days before the start of the show and with cancellations representing 34,680 sq. ft . or around 20% of the show floor (although 3300 sq.ft. of that was re-sold).

US President Donald Trump announced sweeping travel restrictions while ConExpo 2020 was taking place, prompting the show to end early. Photo: Reuters

Although this time around Wuesthoff and Rozum are hoping for less excitement from exhibitors pulling out of their shows, the effects of the pandemic and the way it has radically changed the way we all do business are making it more challenging for them to sign up some exhibitors for ConExpo-Con/Agg and IFPE 2023.

For a start, both organizers report that COVID-related travel restrictions are currently preventing some foreign OEMs, especially smaller Chinese manufacturers, from confirming their participation, especially in the ‘country pavilions’ which total over 22,000 sq.ft. and are traditionally used to house smaller overseas participants.

At the time of writing, the Chinese government continues to restrict “unnecessary” overseas travel for its citizens, prompting some Chinese firms to pay a small deposit to put their space ‘on hold’ but not commit further while they try to work out whether they will be able to travel.

“With the country pavilions, we’re being cautiously optimistic,” Wuesthoff says. “We’re working with the pavilion organiser where there is space on hold. We obviously have to continue to see if these companies, especially from China, will be able to actually get there. We’re just trying to remain really flexible with that and watching the space we have left and trying to protect that for as long as we can. We want to work with our partners to try to get everybody in that wants to come.”

“At IFPE we have the pavilion space on hold,” Rozum adds. “We do have it under contract and we’re working with exhibitors as best we can to give the flexibility so that if they can make it, we’ll have the space available for them. At some point we’ll have to pull the trigger on whether they can make it or not.”

Wuesthoff points out that although the presence of these companies is a “small but important part of the overall offering of ConExpo,” their absence is having very little ‘significant’ impact on overall sales figures.

A quick look at the online floorplans for both exhibitions shows mostly swathes of blue ‘reserved’ space, dotted with only a few areas of yellow, marked ‘available.’

Visitors at IFPE 2020. Photo: IFPE

“For ConExpo-Con/Agg we’re really on par with where we were in our cycle for the 2020 show in terms of the exhibit space sales and number of companies exhibiting,” Wuesthoff says confidently. “We just continue to see demand from exhibitors. We are at 98% capacity and we have just real limited space left, indoors and outdoors.”

For IFPE, on the other hand, with its greater mix of international exhibitors, Rozum says that a renewed reluctance from some firms to commit to overseas travel, is having an impact.

“IFPE is a little bit - just a hair behind where we had paced in the past,” Rozum says. “The IFPE show relies more heavily on international exhibitors and non-US-based companies so we’re seeing a little bit more hesitancy in some of those areas that are still under heavy COVID pressure and they’re not certain if they’re going to be able to get out of the country yet.”

As well as ongoing COVID restrictions in China, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is another international factor threatening to deter international visitors. But, with still nine months to go before the show, both organizers say the situation could change rapidly.

“It remains to be seen whether visitors from Russia or Ukraine can come given how much time we still have before the show takes place,” Wuesthoff says. “There is still a fair amount of time. I know we’re under that one-year mark, so I know it’s all ‘ooh it’s coming’ but from a sales period, the volume that we continue to see coming in from now through the remainder of the show are a lot of those small exhibitors so there’s still a fair amount of time left in our sales cycle.”

Perhaps more worrying for the show organizers though, is not the manufacturers who are being forced away from the show due to international events, but rather the OEMs in the US and elsewhere who are thinking hard about the large marketing budget and time required to take space at these kinds of shows.

Red, black and white Manitowoc logo on a booth building with people in front Manitowoc at the ConExpo exhibition in March 2020

With space at ConExpo selling at between US$16 per sq.ft. and around $45 per sq.ft. and the costs involved in shipping huge stands and equipment to the venue, not to mention the cash required to fly staff to the event, put them up and the money required for hospitality events, it can add up to millions of dollars for the biggest OEMs.

And with Messe München, the organizers of ConExpo’s European counterpart Bauma deciding to move its show from its usual springtime slot to October 2022 – just five months before ConExpo - marketing budgets are coming under even more pressure. 

In June, Manitowoc announced to investors that it had made the decision to withdraw from ConExpo due to cost increases which it said made it “inappropriate” to invest in exhibiting at the show. Instead, the company said it planned to host a North American Crane Days event at its Shady Grove headquarters in Pennsylvania to showcase additional new cranes.

“Manitowoc has been confronted with significant cost increases over the last eighteen months. Due to these cost increases, multiple price increases have been required which have been passed on to our dealers and customers. At this point, we do not believe it’s appropriate to invest in a second, large trade show that occurs less than five months after Bauma 2022,” Ion Warner, VP for marketing and investor relations at Manitowoc told Diesel Progress.

“We were too far down the road with Bauma 2022 in making any changes to our investment in the show. We assess participating in global and regional trade shows on a case-by-case basis.”

Competition with Bauma

“We recognize that company decision-makers are facing multiple challenges coming out of COVID, as they manage through inflationary demands and supply chain challenges,”  Wuesthoff says. “However, we know there is great demand for face-to-face interaction with customers at trade shows. ConExpo is going to be the largest show ever and our exhibitor sales are exceeding records. In fact, the Manitowoc space at the show was sold almost immediately.” 

Wuesthoff points out that although it may not be ideal that Bauma and ConExpo have ended up within six months of each other this time around, exhibitors have at least had time to plan for the added expense and logistical difficulties involved in moving vast exhibition stands and equipment between the two shows.

“Bauma shared that news of when their dates were going to be quite in advance so I think that gave exhibitors a nice runway to plan accurately so I think exhibitors have had time to work through those logistics,” she says.

Manitowoc is not the only major name absent from this year’s exhibitor directory. Last year JCB announced that the company had changed its marketing approach as a result of the pandemic and would be “unlikely” to be attending future traditional trade shows.

JLG New Perspective JLG started hosting a series of online and offline New Perspective events as an alternative to participating in large trade shows last year. Photo: JLG

US-based aerial lift manufacturer JLG, which is not currently listed in the ConExpo directory, told Diesel Progress that it “does not wish to discuss its plans for ConExpo at this time,” and has not ruled out participation in the event. Last year it announced that it would not be attending Bauma, which is taking place in October 2022, but would instead be investing in new and evolving technologies to showcase its products.

“As 9 to 5 workdays have become a thing of the past, flexible hour engagement is increasingly common, so we also have wanted to develop experiences that allowed users, regardless of time zone, the ability to experience JLG where and when they wanted, giving them the control to explore what was of greatest interest and of greatest benefit to their business on demand,” says Director of Marketing Jennifer Stiansen. She added that JLG had hosted several smaller localized events in the last few months “with great success.” 

Wuesthoff has heard these arguments before. “Having a smaller more intimate event is great if you already know your audience and you want to engage with your customers or maybe you have a few hot prospects in your database of leads. But what about the people that you don’t know? What about the prospects that you’re never going to reach because they don’t know who you are or they are perhaps a customer of your competitor and they are not going to come openly to you?”

“It’s really more about that market opportunity,” she says. “We’re bringing all of this vast industry of people together. You might be coming to the show looking for X but you discover Y and it changes your life but you didn’t even know you needed Y. You might make a connection with a dealer or a supplier.”

ConExpo market opportunity

“I think the most critical thing for an exhibitor to think about is what’s the audience and what is that audience need? If that audience is looking for an opportunity to shop and understand what products are available in a competitive marketplace, they want to talk to your engineer, your product expert and they want to go see what the other competitive brands are and to be able to get that done with one trip for them, one investment as opposed to ten different intimate small customer events.”

And what about those who argue that shipping thousands of people and pieces of construction equipment to the Mojave Desert is an indefensible waste of carbon at a time when companies are coming under more and more pressure to reduce business travel and lower their carbon footprints?

The Las Vegas Convention Center West Hall expansion. Photo: Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority

Again, the organizers say, a large trade show like ConExpo offers economies of scale. “I think it goes back to looking at the holistic activities of any company and where they choose to spend those resources or make those decisions. Carbon goes along with any business activity,” Wuesthoff says.

“A small customer event has a lot of the same components as a trade show, just on a smaller scale. But how many of those do you have? If you’re doing smaller events, do you do twelve events a year, is that any different from what you would have spent on one trade show? Our trade show is once every three years.”

“By being in one place all together you’ve got the opportunity to see 130,000 customers and those customers can visit all of their vendors in one spot as opposed to perhaps travelling to multiple locations or a dozen single vendor experiences,” Rozum adds.

Moreover, although they plan to continue to offer its online show directory and product listings and will be offering visitors the chance for digital promotion before and after the event and to view educational talks digitally, the organizers say that ConExpo-Con/Agg and IFPE 2023 will continue to be a purely in-person live event.

“When COVID hit, it gave us in the show industry, this challenge of being thrown into a position where how do we do what we do when we can’t get together? The primary goal of exhibitions is to get together and see and touch and feel products and be with people and suddenly we can’t do that,” Rozum says.

“The attempt to have the digital hall with the digital booths and the little avatars of people walking along, from what we’ve heard across the board from attendees and exhibitors, it just really wasn’t something that was very effective or had a very high ROI. We’re looking at how to use digital as a complement to what we’re doing in this show to add additional content. But the ultimate goal is to draw people back together where they can see and touch the equipment and share the stories and conversation and networking that only can happen in person.”

Exhibitors taking space

Certainly, with so much space sold out, it seems thousands of exhibitors have already voted with their feet by committing to the 2023 show. 

One of the exhibitors taking the most space is Caterpillar, which has signed up for a 70,000 sq.ft. stand in the Festival Lot on which the manufacturer plans to hold the finals of its global operator challenge. 

Another major exhibitor is US-based compact equipment specialist Bobcat, which is taking two adjoining booths in the West Hall at the show. Like many OEM executives, Laura Ness Owens, vice president of global brand and communications and North American marketing at Bobcat says that ConExpo-Con/Agg remains an important focus for the company as a whole. “ConExpo is a special show for our industry and the Bobcat Company team looks forward to connecting with our dealers, customers, editors and Bobcat enthusiasts during a week that will move our company and industry forward,” she says. “We want show visitors to be among the fist to see and experience Bobcat’s newest machines, technologies and services. It also provides an opportunity for our company leaders and experts to participate in education sessions, machine walkarounds, in-booth presentations, media interviews and interactions with show attendees.”

US compact equipment, landscaping and drilling machine specialist, Vermeer is another of the big names which has returned to the in-person trade show scene with enthusiasm, exhibiting at the Utility Expo in Louisville, Kentucky in September 2021 as well as a number of smaller events in 2022. It will be taking space in Diamond Lot at ConExpo.

“Technology certainly has helped everyone stay connected during the pandemic and online video meetings have become a new normal for the way business is done,” says Kayla Breja, Vermeer marketing manager. “But construction is not a job anyone can do from home or without a team. It requires strong leadership and training to do challenging work on jobsites. At Vermeer we operate in the same way. We understand the value of working together in person and how vital face-to-face conversations are to exchange ideas and innovate. Trade shows have always been an important way for our team to collaborate and share knowledge with the industry.”

One form of technology which the organizers hope will act as a draw though is the new LVCC Loop which carries passengers to four stations across the 200-acre LVCC campus in specially adapted Tesla cars and will be available for ConExpo visitors to use.

The Las Vegas Convention Center Loop. Photo: Resorts World Las Vegas

As well as the addition of The Loop, this time around the show will also include a new layout as it makes use of a gargantuan extension to the West Hall, providing the venue with a total additional 1.4 million sq.ft. of space and pushing up the amount of exhibition space at ConExpo, which Wuesthoff says will increase from around 2.5 million sq.ft. to 2.7 million.

The newly expanded West Hall will house some earthmoving and material handling stands including the likes of Case, Hitachi, Hyundai and K-Tec/Ashland, while the outdoor Diamond Lot next to it will be used for a range of sectors including trucking, hauling, concrete, engines and components, engine drivetrains, land clearing and underground construction. IFPE will remain in the South Hall second level while cranes and lifting equipment will take up most of the enormous Festival Lot.

“There will be a little bit more exhibition space of course because the show itself is going to be a little bit larger this year,” Wuesthoff says. “The footprint of the show is just shifting a little bit with the use of that West Hall and Diamond Lot space.”

The next challenge for both ConExpo and IFPE comes next month when visitor registrations open in August. Last time the organizers reported that more than 130,000 people had registered to attend the show, although they did not report how many of these ended up as no shows due to the pandemic.

Back then of course, organizers reported that ConExpo alone attracted more than 2300 exhibitors and IFPE hosted another 300 plus. While Wuesthoff says she expects the show to include the same number of exhibitors as last time, Rozum points out that total numbers are likely to tick up in the coming months.

“The number of exhibitors usually rises just before the show starts because most of the exhibitors that come in late are the small ones,” Rozum adds, hopefully. “So, you have a flood of the smaller indoor booths at the very end. They’ll get there.”

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