Skip to main content

SISO Update


30 Apr 2021

SISO Update

200+ trade show executives gather in Florida to network and exchange ideas


After going more than one year without an in-person event, SISO hosted 200+ executives for the CEO Summit 2021, held April 12-15 at the Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island, FL. The robust crowd gathered to discuss industry trends, exchange ideas and network with colleagues and suppliers. While travel restrictions kept most international attendees from coming into the U.S., there were a handful of SISO members who were granted visas for entry because they were deemed essential to the country's national interest.

“This month's SISO CEO Summit brought the industry's leaders back together for the first time since the pandemic closed us down,” said David Audrain, CEO, SISO. “The atmosphere was incredibly positive, and the discussions focused on moving forward with in-person events." 

During the annual business meeting, outgoing SISO Chair Doug Emslie, who is Group CEO of Tarsus Group PLC, provided an overview of the association's efforts in
the last year:

Association management contract extension. The SISO board approved a three-year extension on the management contract of the association to ExpoDevCo, which has managed the association for six years. “David has gone above and beyond
in the last year in terms of standing up and leading our industry in the most pivotal of times,” said Emslie. “The industry came to SISO and David to take the lead  with all the other associations, so it speaks volumes for what he has done for us.”

Financials. “It's been a tough year, but it was a stroke of luck or genius that David Audrain took out insurance for us,” said Emslie. “The fact that we had insurance meant that operationally we broke even last year. We continue to have a strong balance sheet.” 

Advocacy. “In 2020, SISO made a contribution of $250,000 into the Go LIVE Together advocacy program to kick it off,” said Emslie. “SISO was the biggest contributor. It was absolutely critical that we got the Go LIVE campaign off the ground.”

Maintaining and expanding SIGs. SISO has eight special interest groups (SIGs). Emslie highlighted two of the most active groups: small business and women. “Phil McKay has done a fantastic job running the Small Business SIG. They have monthly webinars, which have attracted a strong number,” Emslie said. The Women's SIG, led by Mary Larkin, hosted a half-day forum on April 12. “There's a new Digital SIG, led by David Adler and RD Whitney, that will focus on online revenue streams and platforms. It's mission-critical as we get back to live … how do we think about digital. That group will likely take on a new and different significance.”

Lobbying. “The real credit goes not to SISO but actually to Bob Priest-Heck with Freeman,” said Emslie. “He came to SISO to support Go LIVE Together financially and operationally. It started as a project but became clear that this is a long-term issue that needs an advocacy arm.”  In 2021, the Exhibitions and Conferences Alliance (ECA) was formed to run the advocacy efforts in the U.S., and SISO committed $250,000 in 2021 to fund ECA, which will now oversee the Go LIVE campaign. “ECA has a budget of $600,000 to advocate for our industry. The most important task at the moment is to get the exhibition industry open in every major place,” Emslie said. “We have a lot of work to do. We hired Tommy Goodwin to head up the government affairs of the ECA, a collection of eight industry associations.” Audrain and IAEE President David DuBois are co-presidents, and SISO has four directors on the ECA board.

Incoming SISO Chair Hervé Sedky, who is President and CEO of Emerald, offered insight into what's ahead for the association as he takes over the leadership: “Our three main priorities going forward are reopening, inclusion and diversity, and the role of digital
in face-to-face. Safe and secure reopening has been and continues to remain a top priority. For diversity and inclusion, we have formed a task force dedicated to conceptualizing and implementing new D&I initiatives focused on driving change. Finally, we are taking the Digital SIG that was focused on incremental value-added revenue and transforming that to focus on better understanding the future role of digital in face-to-face.”

Launch of Asia CEO Summit

SISO – in partnership with the Association of Event Organizers (AEO) in the U.K., SACEOS, the Singapore Association of Conventions, Exhibitions and Suppliers, and UFI — announced the initiative to launch the Asia CEO Summit in October in Singapore. “It's been three years in the works when we started the SIG for international organizers,” said Emslie. “Hosted by the Singapore Tourism Board, the event's objective is to bring international organizers together with Asian organizers to exchange information on global issues and make more connections. We are hoping to start with 100 organizers over two days. If you are interested in doing business in Asia, please join us.”


Krakoff Award

SISO awarded the industry's most prestigious award, the Robert L. Krakoff Industry Award of Excellence, to Tony Calanca, Principal at Calanca & Associates, LLC.

This award is named in honor of a legend of the industry, Robert L. Krakoff, who built and ran some of the most successful businesses in the exhibition industry. It is the only award that SISO gives out, and it is only given to the most impactful leaders of for-profit businesses in the exhibition and event industry. 

“This is an amazing and incredible honor, and I'm very grateful,” said Calanca. “I'm very fortunate to have worked directly for Bob Krakoff for five years and indirectly for another 10. In terms of diversity and inclusion, I would like to say my wife had a lot to do this, and she was the first female president of Reed Exhibitions North America, so a tip of the cap to her on that.”

A list of previous winners can be found here.

Health and Safety

SISO worked with Fern HealthCheck and 42Chat to provide a safe and healthy environment at the CEO Summit. Attendees could upload their vaccination records to receive a vaccine credential for a Digital Pass on their mobile devices. Prior to travel, attendees could order a PCR COVID test to be sent to their homes and returned before the meeting. In addition, Fern HealthCheck provided on-site test kits with self-administered, lower-nasal, virtually observed,15-minute rapid-response antigen testing.

“The premise of Fern Health Check is straightforward. We offer a digital way to indicate whether individuals have received a COVID-19 vaccination or recently tested negative for the coronavirus. This allows attendees to feel more confident and comfortable to travel to business events like SISO CEO Summit,” said Paul Gulbin, Chief Revenue Officer, ShareMy.Health, which has partnered with Fern to offer the HIPAA-compliant Digital Health Passport service.

“Throughout 2021, a secure and HIPAA compliant Digital Health Passport is a desirable alternative to continuing lockdowns until herd immunity — estimated to occur at about an 85% vaccination rate is achieved,” Gulbin said.

Each day, attendees received a text message provided by 42Chat to complete a three-question health screening to receive a pass to enter the meeting. Masks were required, and seating was physically distanced during the meeting sessions and meal functions.

What's Next

The SISO Summer Conference will be held Aug. 24-26 at the Omni Louisville in Kentucky. Registration is not yet open, but you can fill out this form and a member of the SISO team will be in touch as soon as registration becomes available.


Key Quotes and Takeaways from the 2021 SISO CEO Summit Sessions

Talent optimization. As an executive, your job is talent optimization. How do you achieve this? One of the ways is first acknowledging that "Trust changes reality,” according to Angela Scalpello, Owner and Principal, The Scalpello Group, LLC during a session titled The Power in the Pause: Reimagining the Possible at the SISO Executive Women's Forum. “Then making sure your team knows and trusts each other. With trust, we see reality more clearly and are more open to engage and innovate.” Keep in mind: Vulnerability increases trust, not the other way around.

Getting ahead of burnout. As trade show organizers ramp up for a busy Q3 and Q4, executives are worried about retaining talent. “A lot of what we've gone through in the last year is that people have been grateful to have a job, but as we are starting to come back I have concerns about my team feeling burnout. What can I do to get ahead of that? Now that everyone is hiring again, how do I not lose those team members?” asked one SISO CEO Summit attendee. “Expectations have fundamentally shifted,” said Jessica Blue, Executive Vice President, Emerald Expositions, during the session titled Navigating the Crossroads at the SISO Executive Women's Forum. “The job market has opened up phenomenally for employees because of remote work. It's really going to shake up our industry in terms of employee choice. Employers need to be ready for that. Employees will expect some flexibility. Recognizing burnout vs. stress is critical. Having open and honest conversations with employees will help uncover issues early on so you can support your employees in the most appropriate way.” 

M&A deals during COVID. “What's selling now and wasn't sold?” asked Rachel Wimberly, EVP Business Development and M&A for Tarsus Group, U.S., during a Q&A session with Kathleen Thomas, Managing Director, JEGI Clarity. “We sold EHIR (Employer Health Innovation Roundtable), which is a peer-to-peer membership-based hosted-buyer business in the healthcare space, to World 50,” said Thomas. “That need to network, that need to share information, that need to collaborate with folks in your sector continues, and that's why your industry will continue to grow post-COVID. This company was able to continue to serve its mission on a digital platform and so they continued double-digit growth straight through COVID because they were platform agnostic. That's encouraging to me for the trade show industry.”

No carpeting: sustainable and operational wins. “One of the things we've decided is that we're not going to have carpet in our shows anymore,” said Nancy Walsh, President, Informa North America, during the Opening General Session titled Next Steps as we Recover and Rebuild. “That is huge from a sustainability standpoint. At the same time, that will also help from an operational standpoint.”

Stepping up security.  After successfully producing the Jewelers International Showcase (JIS) in March in Miami, Fernando Fischer, President, Reed Exhibitions Americas, said: “The one learning that I would use on the next events is related to the security.” At JIS, Reed used staffers in show t-shirts to walk the show floor with signage to remind exhibitors and attendees to wear masks. “They were too nice. We are going to use more security teams who will be trained to be more firm.”

Costs will increase in the short term. “In the short term, we were very clear that it's going to cost us more money, and therefore we will take P&L hits,” said Sedky. “There's no question about it. The key is to focus on the mid- to long-term and to produce strong events that our customers want to attend — not must attend. So, you have to create the safety and security, the right environment and have the right content. There's a lot that we need to do. I'm more cognizant of the fact that it's going to unfortunately be costly to do that, but we're not going to compromise safety, security well-being or content.”

Economic outlook is positive. “With additional stimulus forthcoming, demand gets a boost but supply will be constrained by ongoing lockdown measures and not just in America,” said Anirban Basu, Chairman and CEO, Sage Policy Group, Inc. “The back half of 2021 should be spectacular for economic growth. However, there will be a day of reckoning as demand hawks come back into fashion, creating the possibility of greater austerity during the years ahead.”

Mentoring + diversity + inclusion. Reed launched a matchmaking mentor program as one of the pillars to create a more equal, fair, diverse, and inclusive environment in the company and our industry, said Fischer. “On top of improving our hiring process, correcting any unequal gap we might currently have, creating opportunities and supporting our current diverse talents to fully develop their potential is the ultimate goal of our mentoring program,” he said. “The Reed mentoring program offers content that covers professional development, prepares both mentor and mentees for an assertive conversation, and gives them the tools they need to constantly improve our most valuable asset — our people.”

Putting intersectionality into practice. The term “intersectionality” came up more than once during the session titled The Value of Diversity. What does it mean? The interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage. How does that play out in practice? “It isn't just about having black companies or companies that focus on LGBTQ+ or focus on indigenous people,” said Courtney Carter, Founder of Ally2Action. “It's about how do we find intersectionality and help build each other up along the way. That's how you move the ball forward.”

Improving the fan experience on a year-round basis. Prior to the pandemic, ReedPop had two independent businesses — digital and events — with different strengths. “Going forward we are going to take the best of digital and events to connect with our community 365 days a year,” said Lance Fensterman, Global President, ReedPOP, a division of Reed Exhibitions, during the session titled Direct to Consumer Trends. His team gathered data from surveys and online engagement to determine the path forward. The good news: 81% of fans will come back to a live event this year with some requirements. ReedPOP is offering new products, including a new content website with Metaverse, a marketplace with a virtual show floor, and a membership with a subscription platform with new products and services across events and three web sites by summer, Fensterman said.

Addressing female leadership. “Why are we still having this conversation about women in leadership positions and pay equity?” Mary Larkin, President, Diversified Communications USA asked during the session titled Stop the Talking, Start the Doing. “Fatigue around the discussion is being raised more and more, so we wanted to have that discussion today. You hear comments like things are definitely improving for women. The data shows, otherwise, and the impact of COVID has been significant on women in particular, especially in leadership positions.”

Larkin cited a study that reports: “At the beginning of 2020, 38% of women had managerial positions, and 62% of managerial positions were held by men. This is where the pool starts to dry out a little bit. Those women are not visible to be able to move into the director, senior manager position, the VP position, and it just exacerbates the problem.”

Responses from the panel:

  • “Things are changing, but they're not changing fast enough,” said Scalpello. “Many of the best companies are setting targets — numbers that you are held to. Targets are aspirational, and I'm seeing companies tie bonuses to targets that they want to reach.”
  • “Instead of thinking about what are the problems we're facing, we actually decided this year to take action,” said Martha Donato, President, MAD Event Management. “That started with a weekly Zoom call that led to the start of an organization that's called Women in Exhibitions Network. It's a club, and it's for any woman in the exhibition industry. It's completely inclusive.”
  • “I have a direct staff of 12 and eight of them are women. For the layer below that, directors, it's actually an even higher percentage of women,” said Greg Topalian, CEO, Clarion Events North America. “So, the odds are the leadership of Clarion in the future is going to be a female.”
  • “At Questex, 66% of our directors, VPs and executive direct reports to me are women. We have gone through a  pay equity analysis, and we were fortunate to discover that we do have equity,” said Paul Miller, CEO, Questex. Recently, Questex conducted an employee engagement study, and “the response from the women was a little bit like the research that you've shown … women are struggling to be fully engaged and struggling to bring their full selves. It was a little bit of a wake-up call because I think COVID really has thrown a wrench into that.”

Changing consumer behaviors due to the pandemic. “Would you say that the pandemic has shifted consumer behaviors in some of the decisions they're making on purchases?” asked Blue during the session titled New Horizons, Unique Perspectives: How are leaders in other industries responding to the changes caused by the global pandemic? “Consumers are responding to the ‘tri-cis' in the world — the racial reckoning, the health crisis and COVID, and the economic crisis or volatility — that many are experiencing particularly small businesses, particularly women and minorities,” said Cheryl Overton, Founder & CXO, Cheryl Overton Communications. “All three are impacting consumer behavior, not necessarily in a negative way.”

Putting safety first. “One of the things that when I think about our business … we've been obsessed with density and with getting as many people put into smaller spaces as humanly possible. Packed aisles have been a good thing. We've created that. What do you think about our events and what the future may look like?” asked Blue. “What we have to do is put safety and comfort first,” said Overton. “Brands still want to create experiences, but it's about how you can make people feel safe. You'll still see very high-touch experiences that brands will be creating, but there may be a premium for that experience. So instead of a 200-seat theater, maybe it's a 100-seat theater at a higher price point and then the virtual experience has a different price if you want to engage with that experience.”

Impact on small businesses. “About a year ago, I had the pleasure of having a conversation with Connecticut Congressman Joe Pines,” said Sedky during a session titled Advocacy Update. “We were talking about the impact that exhibitions have on the economy, and something that occurred to me and to him on that call … everyone understands the impact of jobs, the union jobs, the people that we employ directly and indirectly in the industry. But what the Congressman shared with me is that what he did not realize is the importance in reopening the economy because of the number of small businesses that really need trade shows to be successful. More than 80% of our clients are small businesses, and that's something that politicians didn't know. He suggested that we really talk about that. It will be even a more important message in Congress than anything else that we're doing.” 

Travel and tourism sector hit hard by pandemic. “To put in perspective for the whole travel industry, we've lost $500 billion last year, while the U.S. economy has lost $1.1 trillion,” said Roger Dow, President and CEO, U.S. Travel Association. “As an industry, the whole travel and tourism sector generates 17 million jobs. We're down to 11 million — some 35%. What we've got to get Washington to understand is that of the unemployed people out of work right now due to the pandemic, 65% are from the travel, tourism or meetings industry. We represent only 10% of U.S. workers, but two-thirds of the unemployed are in our industry.”

Economic impact of exhibition industry. “If you think about where we were the end of 2019, we were good for about $396 billion in total economic impact, 6.6 million jobs, and $130 billion in tax revenue that our industry generated,” said Tommy Goodwin, Vice President of Government Affairs, Exhibitions & Conferences Alliance (ECA). “To Roger's point about the impact on the broader industry, there's more than $400 billion of knock-on effects on hotels, transportation, flights, restaurants, retail that this industry supported. And 1.7 million vendors or exhibitors every year at our shows, with 80% of them a small business. Then one day last March, that all vanished.”

A look at M&A post COVID-19. “Prior to the pandemic, the average platform deals with a larger grouping of events was trading at 12 times EBITDA and bolt-on deals, which is more of the one-off independent operators, was in the seven to eight times EDITDA dollar range,” said David Doft, CFO, Emerald. “What does that look like post COVID?”

Valuations in question. “The trickiest part right now is the lack of predictability,” said Topalian. “The old model of saying … what was the EDITDA of your event last time and give me a three-year snapshot so I can project out. That drove the multiples before. Today that's incredibly challenging. Anybody who is in those conversations now realizes that 2019 is just an indicator now, but it's not a guarantee. But I remain bullish in the channel. Nobody was buying anything in 2008 or 2009 either, and it led to some incredible years. That's ahead of us.” 

Cash on the sidelines. “The difference between 2008 and 2009 vs. now is that we're much better off in terms of capital,” said Tom Kemp, CEO, Northstar Travel Media, LLC. “2019 was a record-setting year for raising private equity funds. There's been a huge amount — over a trillion dollars — that wasn't funded before COVID. So, there's a lot of cash out there. Strategic balance sheets are generally pretty strong, and even the debt markets have come back. A lot of the attributes of the face-to-face event industry — the cash flow, the margins — those things will be consistent. The challenge will be valuations because you can't value the business on the traditional TTM (Trailing Twelve Months) of EBITDA since there was essentially no EBITDA for events.”

M&A outlook for the small business owner. “I don't know if we were all looking at M&As. We were looking to just stay alive. How have you stayed relevant through the past 12 months?” asked Phil McKay, President & CEO, nGage Events, LLC.

Dates, digital and dollars. “I looked at three key areas that we could control or at least drive ourselves. I call those the three Ds: dates, digital and dollars,” said Joel Davis, Founder and CEO, JD Events. “When I say dates, I mean viable dates to hold a show. I made the very difficult decision back in May of last year to basically not chase false hopes of holding shows in 2020. I shut everything down until Q4 2021. We only have four shows — two will be in October of 2021 and two will be in December. What I'm most proud of are some of the digital solutions like webinars, online news, information and buyer-seller Zoom calls that our team innovated during this time. That revenue from digital helped us offset our overhead costs for the last six or eight months. Last but not least is dollars. Cash is king. If you don't have it, you're not going to survive. Towards the end of the year, it was not a pretty picture, so I had no choice but back to my original investors. I was blown away that they all stepped up, and we raised enough capital to get us through 2021.”

Launching subscription services. “We have 15 full-time team members, and I'm really proud to say that we figured out how to not let one single team member go through the pandemic,” said Michelle Metter, Partner, Fast Forward Events. “When the stay-at-home order happened in California, we sent our team home and two days later, we had a plan that would create reoccurring revenue not specifically tied to a live-in person conference or event. We looked at our SommCon conference and the e-learning space, which was projected to be a $376 billion industry by 2026. We realized there was a missed opportunity, so we launched SommGo, a membership subscription series and e-learning platform for the global wine industry that puts on-demand education in the hands of beverage professionals and enthusiasts. It has an app that's coming out soon. Right now, we have curated upward of 200 on-demand opportunities. It has monthly recurring revenue through subscriptions, which are paid either monthly or on an annual basis. Our exhibitors and sponsors have sessions and, in some cases, dedicated channels on the platform, so are still participating with these classes and courses.”

Diversification keeps business going. “We have a staff of 15 right now. In 2020, we were supposed to have 11 events, and we had to cancel eight,” said Stephanie Everett, COO and Partner, Exposition Development Company Inc. “It was this horrible cycle of postponing and canceling shows every few weeks. We just kept talking to our communities — our exhibitors, our attendees and our partners, but we never really made a jump into the virtual or hybrid type of show. We are diversified in terms of show management contracts, as well as our own shows. That allowed us to have some cash coming in every month to keep the team alive. We were supposed to have 11 shows in 2021, and we've lost two. After this event, our next show is in the first week of June, and we will have six this summer.”

Putting the customer first. “Innovation was one of the key things that Steve Jobs drove to every single day. I think the definition of innovation is when you look at things that already exist and come up with something majorly better than what already exists,” said George Blankenship, Former Executive at Tesla Motors, Apple Computer and GAP Inc., during the Closing Keynote titled The Future of Innovation. One attendee asked: How did Steve Jobs and Elon Musk convince the people who work for them to follow them in a period of innovation? “It's really an important question because what you're asking is about the people, not the technology,” said Blankenship. “If there was one thing that both of them did … put the customer first. You start with the customer and then you back into the technology.”

Thank you to our SISO sponsors for their support of the CEO Summit. 

2021 Sponsor Logos



  • “Without a doubt the most valuable three days of the year for networking, learning, and meeting colleagues.”
    Tony Calanca, Calanca & Associates LLC
  • “Two of the best acquisitions Access Intelligence had executed came directly from contacts and discussions held at the SISO CEO Summit. Beyond that important networking for transactions, I learn best practices from the best in the industry. The ROI for membership is immeasurable.”
    Don Pazour, CEO, Access Intelligence
  • “The impact of SISO is so much bigger than its size. It feels more like a global council of important tribes than a traditional trade association.”
    David Adler, CEO & Founder, Bizbash Media
  • “Our industry thrives on the personal relationships that face-to-face builds, and the CEO Summit is the ultimate place to build YOUR network!”
    Tom Mitchell, President, Messe Dusseldorf North America
  • “As busy, independent, for-profit organizer, SISO keeps our company connected to all the key players working in this industry and allows great relationships and ongoing learning of best practices from the best in the business. All invaluable assets to help move our business forward."
    Howard Hauben, CEO, H2 Events
  • “The SISO membership represents the entire for-profit tradeshow community and the annual SISO conferences are must-attend events for their educational and networking value.”
    Joel A. Davis, Founder & CEO, JD Events
  • Being a member of SISO has allowed me to navigate the dynamic landscape of our industry in the most effective way possible. Personally, it’s been a journey of continuous learning, networking, and collaboration that fosters deep relationships with industry leaders. Professionally, the insights I’ve gained, the resources I have accessed, and the collaborative initiatives and advocacy work have helped to take my organization to new heights. SISO, to me, is an indispensable asset for my career and business.
    Liz Irving, President, Clarion Events