There is a whole pile of back seat driving happening lately in the pro AV and digital signage communities about how to run a trade show in the COVID-19 era, and much of the focus has squarely been on Dave Labuskes, the CEO of AVIXA, which runs InfoComm and co-owns the even larger trade show ISE.
The show is happening in about a month in Orlando, and with other big trade shows saying never mind for 2021, there are endless questions and suggestions about the prospects of the show even happening.
It will, says Labuskes, unless there are measures like government-mandated closures. Given that the show is in Florida, that's probably not going to happen.
Labuskes has done some frank interviews lately that went into deep detail about InfoComm and COVID, and the business. I spoke with Labuskes late last week and did not see the value in rehashing and revisiting a lot of what he said, so in our chat we talk a little about how things will come off and why. But we spend a lot more time on bigger picture stuff about how trade shows fit, and whether a niche industry like digital signage can find a well-defined home and community at big, omni AV shows like Infocomm and ISE.
Mr Labuskes, thank you for joining me. I wanted to get into a number of things, but I also didn't want to just rehash some recent conversations you had in an hour long interview last week with Tim Albright from AVnation that went into a lot of frank discussion about where InfoComm is at and everything associated with that, but I can’t cCompletely ignore that, and I just wanted to ask, where are things now , has anything changed in the last week since I watched that interview?
Dave Labuskes: Mr. Haynes, it's good to be here. There have been a couple of other events that have announced cancellations, but there's been nothing that's changed in AVIXA's policy with regards to InfoComm. We still see a runway to a fantastic event with fantastic people conducting fantastic business.
It's been described as being the last trade show standing this fall, but that's not really true. There's all kinds of events going on here, there, and everywhere.
Dave Labuskes: Yeah. There's a lot that's described that isn't necessarily really true, David. But yeah there's events and trade shows happening every day, all around the world, and I'm actually a little confused. For an industry that is really based on overcoming challenges and doing the impossible and making things happen that nobody believed could actually happen, there is that sort of a sentiment that trade shows can't take place right now and that just simply is not true. They're taking place every day.
So I have mixed opinions personally. I was supposed to be doing a mixer down at InfoComm and decided not to do that, and that wasn't really so much about I don't think InfoComm should even happen or anything else, it was just as simply a fact of, I didn't quite see how a cocktail party, where everybody was wearing a mask and being asked to stand six feet apart would work terribly well and the optics were weird.
It's one of those things where I could see a trade show happening, but I didn't see that happening well, and we don't need to get into all of that. I'm curious more about whether or not you're enjoying all the armchair opinions from people who say what you should be doing, but have never actually run a tradeshow?
Dave Labuskes: Before I had this job, I was a partner at a large architectural engineering firm, and one of the gentlemen that was on the search committee that was interviewing me for this job, James Ford, owner of Ford AV and I'll never forget where he was sitting in the boardroom, he leaned forward and said, “Dave, you've got a really good gig, like why would you want this job?” And I'm like that's a great question, and I try to answer it, and he's like, “But Dave, here's the thing: You're running one of the largest consulting practices in the world and if you have a management meeting and you decide to go liveleft, then everybody's going to leave that meeting and they're going to go left, and the jobs that you're interviewing for you and your team are going to decide to go left, and then 50,000 people are going to tell you, you should go right!”
I actually celebrate varied opinions. I do think a lot of people express an expertise that is perhaps inflated in their own perception. Trade shows, they're a complicated industry. I've been doing this now for eight years and I have people on my team that have forgotten twice what I'll ever know. The interplay between the various different constraints, the challenges that people throw out there as though they're simple challenges. Yeah, they're a little frustrating, but I signed up for it. Nobody made me do this job. I was forewarned, so maybe I'm the one that has an exaggerated impression of my expertise.
Is part of the problem just simply that it's Florida and Florida is this eternally weird place at the best of times, but it's got a particular problem and people all the way up to the governor of the state who don't seem to recognize that, “Hey, maybe there's a bit of a problem happening here.”?
Dave Labuskes: Yeah. I think I'll be a little more politically correct than that, and it was nice for you to try it, but it isn't my first rodeo here.
(Laughter) I wasn't trying to bait you. I just think that's a big part of it and the people, the armchair opinion makers who say why don't you just move it or why didn't you just do it in another city? There's a little bit of baggage associated with doing that but just simply speaking, it's a part of the country that has a particular exacerbated problem, but doesn't seem to want to recognize that it has an exacerbated problem.
Dave Labuskes: It all comes from the jurisdictions and it all comes down to point of reference, right? You can also just say, is it the problem that the event is in the United States, right? Because if you look at the United States and compare the United States to other countries, we're not necessarily getting a straight-A report card.
What I have said, and I know we don't want to have the same conversation I've had already with others, is that I don't think the brush that should be used in making that decision is Florida. I think the brush that we should use in painting that picture is Orange County. There's parts of California that may or may not be behaving in the same fashion you or I would do.
So I think you have to look at where are you going to fly into, where you're going to be, where are you going to have dinner, where are you going to sleep? Those types of things, and when you get to that stage orange county this morning had 79.4% of their population over the age 18 having had one shot of the vaccine. They've got a mask order that was issued by the mayor strongly recommending that masks be worn inside any public space. They've got plummeting hospitalization rates, death rates, positivity rates at 12.4%, I believe.
So, I think, unfortunately the world and this country and all of the states have this polarization thing going on, and yeah, would it be more comfortable for people to attend an event somewhere else that are looking from afar and don't take time to do all that research? Probably. The headline, the abbreviated picture, is challenging, but I do think that there are people that are going to make a decision that attending a trade show weighed against other factors just isn't for them this year, and I think they'd make that decision regardless of where it is.
Yeah. I guess that's the other thing that you didn't know you were signing up for was having an extensive ability to talk in genealogical terms.
Dave Labuskes: This is a true story, David. Last year, I came home from the office, and at dinner I said to my wife and son I spent an hour today reading a scientific study about the efficacy of washing your hands with cold water versus hot water, and that is not something I ever anticipated taking place in my career, I will admit that. (Laughter)
By the way, it is just as good. You just don't tend to wash them as long because it's less comfortable, but...
I'm just impressed I was able to say epidemiology.
Dave Labuskes: Happy with that. These are words that were not part of our vocabulary two years ago, right?
Just drafting off of some of that: CEDIA which AVIXA has a relationship with because you co-own ISC had their event last week or the week before in Indianapolis and I won't go into how that went business-wise or anything else, but I'm curious if you had AVIXA folks there and did they see how things were done? I know they had signage and kind of cues on whether you are comfortable with people coming close and all that sort of stuff. Did those things work?
Were there things that you learned from that you can take away and apply to InfoComm?
Dave Labuskes: First part of the question: No, we didn't have anybody from AVIXA at that event that I'm aware of. Not that I know of, but I'm sure there were people there that were AVIXA members. We do have a close relationship with CEDIA. Obviously we have a partnership over a very large joint venture that owns and operates ISC and ISR and DSS. The show itself is owned by Emerald Expositions, and we have our conversational talking relationship with Emerald as well. In fact I have a call next week with Emerald to talk through lessons learned.
I was in Louisville, Kentucky a couple of weeks ago at a SISO conference, which is the Society of Independent Show Operators. So it's Emerald, Informa, and mostly the for-profit trade show organizers and AVIXA was invited to attend. The industry of trade show organizers and meeting planners and event planners, we've joined arms and we recognize that this is a problem for all of us that we have to share best practices with, we have to share learnings with, we have to talk about what works and doesn't work.
It's kinda like the AV industry and as I'm learning more about it, the digital signage industry where people compete, but they also have a comradery where a rising tide lifts all ships kind of a thing, and so I think all trade show operators are working through this, associations as well are famously collaborating with regards to sharing information and learning and helping each other. So that's a good part of the pandemic.
I would imagine one of the things that all these organizations collectively learned, if they didn't already know it, is that the whole virtual trade show thing just really doesn't work. Does it?
Dave Labuskes: It certainly didn't work in v1.0 of 2020. I think v1.5, and we're starting to get closer to 2.0, I think there's hope for it. The best visual I saw over the last 18 months is talking about books versus movies, and you don't convert a book to a movie by putting it on a podium and filming somebody turning the pages. And I think that probably is a closely apt description of what we all did with our first version of the virtual events. But I think you can tell a story, very effectively in print or in film, leveraging and celebrating the differences of the media.
Where I am at now and where AVIXA is driving towards, and you'll see more developments about this in the next couple months is more about how AVIXA delivers on its mission, leveraging physical events and digital platforms, and how do they interface and interact with each other? How do they mutually benefit each other? What's good in one, that's not good in the other?
Not a lot of good, special effects when you're reading a book, but a lot of great imagination when you're reading a book. Not a lot of ability to be character development through introspection in a movie, but it's really easy to do that when you're reading.
I think if you look at education, you look at delivery of information from provider to consumer, that can be done pretty effectively digitally. I think about human interaction and the break time during class is almost impossible to create digitally. That doesn't mean it is impossible. So I see a lot of assumptions that we made in order to achieve X, we needed to convene people face-to-face being challenged. But I also think that all of the pundits that got online in March and April of last year and said, this is the end of face-to-face, and we're going to be digital for the rest of our lives, have seen that they were probably not right with that either.
I think the one thing that I took away, or what I have enjoyed about these virtual events is the ability to attend round tables panels presentations on demand. So I don't need to be somewhere or sit at a certain place, set aside things then at 10:00 AM, I'm going to watch this.
Just the simple fact that I got stuff going on. I can't do this today or right now, that I could click on it and see. Yeah, somebody from Brand X explaining this to me on my terms, and if I'm bored, I just click out, I don't have to stand up and walk out of the room and embarrass the presenter or anything like that. That part I like.
Dave Labuskes: I do too, and that's the irony of it is. If one of the things that all of us like is the absence of time and geography constraints, right? So it doesn't matter if that panel discussions take place in London or Nova Scotia or Orlando, you can still receive the outcome of that panel.
Why are we saying that they should be organized and delivered between 9:00 AM and 4:00 PM Eastern time on Tuesday and Wednesday of next week? That's where I get to this. I think it's more about a digital presence and digital community, a place where people interact when it's appropriate for them to interact, where they can organize their interaction times.
I'm old enough to have been in chat rooms on Prodigy and AOL and you remember you would organize with people like I'm going to be on at eight o'clock tonight for an hour, because you can only afford an hour. Because we were charged by the minute, and then I think that's what we have to recognize. So in that regard, I'm really excited about the fact that I'm not a trade show organizer, instead I’m an association that is committed to an industry and an industry community, and what I can do is build that community both digitally and physically.
What do you think of the suggestion that the days of the big macro show are cloudy and that regionalized events make more sense, so an InfoComm Southwest, an ISE UK, that sort of thing? And granted that was tried a little bit in the past year, but that was out of necessity as opposed to design.
Dave Labuskes: Yeah, I'm intrigued by it. But I think the loudest proponents of it are the attendees, not the exhibitors and the attendees don't pay. Doing ten small shows only costs a little less than doing one big show or less than doing then ten times doing one big show. The cost of doing a show has a fixed amount. Even in the smallest show, you're going to pay an X and then get to the big show, you may only be paying 2X where if you're doing a regional show, like 10 times, you are close to 10X, and your ROI on each of those events is smaller because your audience is small.
Now that's using all the old rules. So if we go back to the last question, if I can segment an audience for an exhibitor and say, I'm going to bring people that have spending authority over half a million dollars that have a project next three months, it's going to require a high-end audio system. That's going to change that algebra, and so I don't think you throw it out the window, but economics has a factor in these things and it's easy to say I would rather go to a small event in Nashville, but the problem is I have to find somebody to pay for it, and even if you say I'm happier to go to a small event in Nashville, I bet you don't want to spend $195 for a ticket to go to that event?
I get the hunger for it. I get the desire for it, but I don't see a business model around it right now. We've never been successful at small events being profitable. There have been good strategies like, before ISE launched. We did small roadshow events from country to country, it was before my time, but I hear stories from the old timers about the amazing sort of experience of going from hotel room or hotel conference to hotel conference across from Warsaw to Budapest to Rome type thing. And we've done them in advance of launching our Bangkok show. We did it in advance of launching our Mumbai show, but those become feeders to a larger event that has a more sustainable business model. We did a lot of what we used to call round tables, for example, we did the AVIXA round table in Baltimore where you'd have 15, 20, maybe 30 people come to them, and so you were spending a lot of money on an event that served 15, 20 or 30 people, and we just felt like there were better ways of spending the industry's money than that.
The demise of Digital Signage Expo certainly raised the eyebrows at AVIXA and got you guys thinking, although you've always had digital signage as a component, you've had pavilions for many years, but there was an opportunity and a sense that something needed to fill that void. Granted, it's been refilled to some degree since then, but the show hasn't happened yet so we'll see how that comes off.
How do you build up the digital signage affinity for InfoComm? Cause I've gone for many years, but I go to have a look at the gear. I'm not a gear head, but I write about it and everything else, but I don't really see it as an end-user show where a big retailer, those kinds of people are going to come to that they maybe they send their gearheads, but more likely it's the integrators that sell into big retail and so on are there are there, so how do you make all that kind of come together over the next couple of years?
Dave Labuskes: Boy, there's so much in that question, David. We should talk more often, I enjoy this.
Yes, it is an unfortunate demise and it didn't get folks in the AVIXA thinking. Yes, we've been looking at the digital signage industry for a long time. I do think it's a community within the larger industry that needs to be celebrated, and that's that other point with regards to small regional shows versus big shows. I think we see lots more shows within shows taking place, and I think that's probably the right solution, and I'm biased. I think AVIXA has the right place to build a home within a home for the digital signage community.
First of all: there was this interesting dynamic between the association and the show operator, right? From an association perspective AVIXA has been having conversations with DSF, with DS-LATAM, with digital signage of Asia, and the various different entities in Europe. When you move from our association to association, one of the ways I think I actually described it to Rich Ventura, he and I were talking probably years ago and it's like you and I, David, are best friends, but our dads owns the competing gas stations on the corner, and so we can go to school and everything and be friends there but when we came home there's limits.
That was kinda how I felt like it was and I felt like there's a window there to not have that dynamic. Now, some of that's changed and I respect Questex. I respect Paul and don't know him well, but I know him and I've had conversations with him and he's a smart guy and I believe he's committed to delivering a successful event. I think it's being honest, looking at what does an organization want, what is the community best one? And making honest agreements and commitments to each other, and then keeping them. There are advantages to working together, and I think the end goal is that “home within a home” and “a community within a community.”
I think the challenge and opportunity for digital signage and InfoComm is the scale of the InfoComm show and the specificity and the heart and relationship with the digital signage community, and I think if we work together, we can build that home within a home. I think it can be more than a guest room. It can be an in-law apartment. It can be a place where it's identified and that's, yeah, I'm disappointed that you're not going to be there, and I know the mixture is just one manifestation of that home within a home, and we look forward to being able to do it in the future.
Absolutely. One of the logistical problems or mechanical problems, so to speak, with a big show like an InfoComm is: yes, you've created these pavilions through the years of digital signage pavilion and some of the vendors have been in that, designated zone, so to speak, but the biggest players are the display manufacturers, and they've always had their spots, their Primo spots, and they're serving a whole bunch of audiences at InfoComm, not just the digital signage people. So how do you figure out a way to create a show within a show when you've got Sony in the front row, Samsung's got a giant booth in the middle of the hall and so on. You're never going to be able to herd them all into one hall, so to speak?
Dave Labuskes: Yeah, so what do you do then? I think what you have to do and we're down to the details of tactics, right? But I think you start to curate attendees' journeys. You use content as the honey to attract and people will come where content is and content can be delivered where people are, and that's the challenge of starting a trade show, but we've done that. We know how to form a trade show and it takes time and it takes continual feeding until it becomes a self-feeding cycle, and then you have to create a journey that is guided a bit so the attendees that are coming from retail or the attendees that are coming from the advertising agencies can get to where they will be able to extract value and some of that will require tour guides, not maps and serendipity, because it's too big to just let somebody lose, but we have that problem now with end users in general at the show, you described as gearheads, but about 40% of the attendees at a typical InfoComm are end user buyers. It's part of what makes that show so valuable to exhibitors.
A lot of them are brought there by channel members. The consultants are bringing their customers, the integrators are bringing their customers. But a lot of them are brought there by us too, with promoting them and developing conference content that would be of interest to them, creating a nucleus of community. It's all very explicit, but it doesn't happen by chance. There are hosted buyers that are brought in to shows around the world. There are groups that are sponsored. There are other associations that are partnered with. Richard runs our Asian subsidiary. He's a genius at identifying influential associations within the geographies and partnering with them to offer programs. Organizations like the Indian Architects Association are partnered with our InfoComm Mumbai event, and they are holding content conferences for architects in conjunction with our event. All of our channels want architects at it. Those types of strategies are part of the town and the team that works on these.
Last question, looking ahead a few months to ISE and it's hard to do the crystal ball thing, but I gather things are calmer in Spain. I don't hear very many people at all saying, hell no, we're not going to Barcelona or anything else, maybe that'll bubble up, who knows? But is ISC in Barcelona going to be normal-ish?
Dave Labuskes: Yes, I think so. Again, like you said, the crystal balls are not crystal clear and now, after the last series of conversations, I think I'm going to put the crystal ball into the same place where I put “pivot” and “agile” and “unprecedented” but yeah, the biggest indicator that you would have about and event like ISC at this stage five months out is sold show floor space, right?
I don't think we've even opened registration for attendees yet, and show floor sales are, I think they're probably about 8% off of 2020. I guess there's no such thing as quoting me because we're recording this, but it's within that ballpark of the size of the last event at the Rye, which is, really the last event to compare it to. So if it's 90% of that size, 80% of that size, I think that's, that absolutely fits into your technical definition of normal.
And there were lots of people who said, because you're going to Barcelona, as awesome a place as it is, it may mean you see a slight drop because people who might go to ISC in Amsterdam, because they can drive there, maybe would not go all the way to Barcelona?
Dave Labuskes: Yeah, but there's other people that are going to drive to Barcelona that wouldn't have driven to Amsterdam. And yeah not a hundred percent a repeat audience, but…
Well, I’m not driving to Barcelona.
Dave Labuskes: Yeah, me neither. (Laughter)
That's those armchair spectators that you talked about earlier, right? We did the homework to make a determination about that, and we love the Rye. We would love to have stayed at the Rye, but the Rye isn’t big enough to hold the show as it was moving forward in the future and it was starting to have a negative impact on attendee experience and you start to have those different factors impact a show and reach the value of the show.
I'll just be happy if I can find my way around.
Dave Labuskes: Yeah, it's a beautiful city. I'll tell you what it's like. It's the opposite of the Rye. It was one of the things I joked with Mike about. Finally I figured out how to get through the Eye without getting lost, and now we've decided to move the show.
Yeah, me too.
All right. I appreciate you taking some time with me. I suspect you're a busy fellow these days.
Dave Labuskes: Never too busy for you, sir. Congratulations on your recent deal. I'm really happy for you.