Even though attendance at this year’s DEMA Show in Las Vegas was markedly lower due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, those who did come managed to do some brisk business, according to Tom Ingram, Executive Director of the Diving Equipment & Marketing Association.
Ingram, who spoke with DeeperBlue.com in a brief telephone interview, acknowledged that like every organization the global pandemic hit DEMA hard:
“COVID is no one’s fault but COVID is impacting everyone. And so we as an organization of course have been pretty hard hit. Between 70 and 80 percent of our revenue comes from the trade show.”
With the cancellation of last year’s event in New Orleans and the subsequent online DEMA Show, Ingram said:
“That was pretty successful from the standpoint of the goal which was to keep people engaged, keep the industry engaged with us and make sure we could provide all the professional development that folks are accustomed to getting when they come to the in-person show, and we did that. Our attendance at the education stuff was really good; for those folks that are accustomed to working online, the exhibitors they did quite well as well, during the 2020 show. For those people that are new to this it was a struggle, but that’s OK, we worked with them all to make sure they were happy with what they came out with.”
As for 2021 in Las Vegas:
“Of course, we rolled a whole bunch of exhibitors over to 2021 and kept our fingers crossed that the world would change but of course it didn’t, and everybody got impacted by this. 2021 has of course been really hard on everyone and with the international lockdowns, that was probably the most difficult part for DEMA Show because between 20 and 30 percent of our exhibitors are international in nature – they come from outside the U.S. — so it’s pretty hard to deal with all of that. But you know what, for 2021 frankly someone had to stand up and start this process over again; we’re never gonna get back to . . . what we all considered normal at the time, but I think we have an opportunity to make some really great changes and we did a lot of that coming into this show, and although a lot of the big guys – not a lot, but several of the big guys — decided that this was not gonna be for them, the folks that are here are just excited to be back together again and we have had such a positive show.”
Ingram also touched on the show’s reduced attendance:
“In terms of attendance, we’re sitting at about 40 percent of where we were the last time we were in Las Vegas, so it’s right around 3,600 attendees and we’re roughly a 10,000-person show give or take a little bit, and so that’s where that number comes from but the fact of the matter is, the quality of the people that are here, this is not a consumer show, so we’ve always said – and I’ll continue to say that quality of the buyer is the most important part of this, in terms of doing business on the show floor and from a professional development standpoint.”
Ingram characterized this year’s show as “smaller but mighty.”
While walking the show floor, Ingram usually gets comments from exhibitors about what could be done better. This year, he said, the near-universal comments he got was gratitude the show was put on at all:
“Usually I’ll walk the floor and I’ll talk to individual exhibitors – as many I can get to in the period of time that I have – and inevitably there’s something that didn’t go right or they want to talk about something that should be done differently.
“I didn’t get any of that this year. I got: ‘Thank you so much for doing the show, we’re so happy to be back together again and business has been booming.’ I had one guy that said to me that he did more business in the first two days than he’s done in the entire show in the past. So the serious buyers are here, the folks that want to do business are here.
“The people that are looking for new vendors for those that unfortunately couldn’t or decided not to be part of the show, those folks . . . retailers are looking to the folks that decided to make the commitment and be here, and there’s some switching that’s going on but that’s the nature of business I guess, but nonetheless it’s been a very positive, very professional show and people are very excited.”
And despite the slowness of the world’s emergence from the pandemic, the future of the annual DEMA Show looks bright, according to Ingram:
“I guess the proof is in the pudding: 97 percent of the people that are here on the show floor have contracted for 2022. So we’re sitting pretty well for that, and of course we’re looking forward to bringing others back into 2022 as we move on throughout the rest of the year.”
If you attended DEMA Show this week as an exhibitor, you’ll get priority for selecting your space for next year in Orlando, Ingram said:
“Space selection is set up in such a way that only the folks that are here exhibiting can select and until they are finished, the folks that were not here, exhibitors that were not here on the floor cannot select until the others have. So that’ll happen later today [Friday November 19th] and we’ve already got some appointments for folks that are coming in that did not exhibit but they’re gonna come in and select space for ’22, so the show is extremely positive, people are very excited to be back and even though those folks that couldn’t because of corporate policies or whatever they made their decision based on to not be here this year, they’re excited to come back.
“So we’re excited to have them – we want them all back, and hopefully we’ll get all of the dive stores and especially the international folks that couldn’t come over because of government mandates, they’ll be back in ’22 as well, and we’re back in Florida next year, so it’s a great location and one of the more open ones so we’re extremely excited about that too.”
Ingram also said very few attendees had taken advantage of DEMA’s financial assistance program, but expects more will do so once the show is over.
Ingram also looked back at how his organization coped with the onset of the pandemic and the decision-making before and after the announcement of the New Orleans show’s cancellation:
“There was actually discussion starting in March on whether we were gonna do anything about that, we were kinda taking a wait-and-see attitude at first to see where things would go, and we got the board together, and the board was very good about trying to address all of the different issues knowing that financially of course it was gonna pound DEMA pretty hard if they decided to do that, but it became important for us from a safety standpoint, there was so little information about COVID-19 in the first place . . . so we felt like it was smarter, we know that our audience tends to be the professional audience, not necessarily the consumer audience but the professional audience tends to be in that 45-year-old range which was where the threshold was that a lot of the warnings were being issued so we kinda felt like that was a big issue, the safety issue.”
Once the decision to cancel the show was made, though, that brought on a host of other issues, according to Ingram:
“The biggest problem of course is how do you get out of a contract with a convention center? What do you do with all of the vendors that we work with in order to make the show happen? And so, once we got the word from the board that this is what we should really do, based on staff recommendations, then we started that process. And I’ll tell you right off the top that from a financial standpoint, the convention centers and all of the other vendors hotels and all of the things that we have to contract with in order to produce a show of this size, we were looking at millions of dollars of penalties, potential penalties.
“But the folks in New Orleans were fantastic, they were really helpful and we negotiated contracts down to the point where we had to pay very little of that – a very small percentage in cancellation fees and in return what we were able to do is to extend out contracts into future years in New Orleans. So the positive side of that is that we’ll be able to go back to New Orleans for several more years which is great because everybody wants to do that, and the negative side of it was that we just couldn’t run the show as we wanted to, and that’s – as soon as we pulled the trigger on cancelling the in-person show, that’s when we started to pull together the online show and especially the professional development side of that so that we could really keep people moving along and learning the things that they needed to learn in order to keep stuff going and a lot of that was COVID-related, so that they can help to move along and cope with all the issues that were out there.”
As for whether he sees a light at the end of this long COVID tunnel, Ingram said:
“I think we’re gonna be in a situation for a while where people remain cautious and I think that’s probably just fine. It’s my belief – it’s my hope – that we get back pretty close to the same size show in Orlando that we’ve had in the past. I don’t know that we will right away, but I guess we’ll see in a year when we get to that point, but the fact of the matter is, I think that people have been so anxious to get back face-to-face, and again, that’s one of the comments I keep hearing, is ‘We’re so happy that DEMA did this, somebody had to stand up and start this process,’ and so I think for the people that were here this year, and for the exhibitors that were here this year, to them it’s – with slight modifications of how they talk to people or shake their hands or whatever it is — for them, we’re as close to getting back to normal as we need to be for the moment.
“And again, I think people are very excited to finally come out of their homes and start to get back to things being what they should be in order for us to engage with each other, talk with each other. I think again people are just very excited to start seeing this come back again, and I think it’s really important to understand that because the diving industry is so heavily travel-dependent, that making the effort to travel here, making the effort to exhibit here, it shows the leadership of those folks that are willing to take those first steps and start getting things back to being able to actually run business in the way that it should be run.”
Be sure to catch Tom Ingram on the first episode of the new season of the DeeperBlue Podcast on Tuesday, November 23rd!