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Back to the big show

As the pandemic winds down, security expos are transitioning back to live events


July 27, 2021
By Alanna Fairey
Crowds gather in the Sands Expo in Las Vegas in 2019 for ISC West

As the general population continues to increase its vaccinations against COVID-19, security show organizers are making the transition from virtual to live events.

ISC West was moved twice in 2020 due to COVID concerns before ultimately staging a virtual-only event in October. By November, ISC West announced its plan to return to a live event in Las Vegas in July with a virtual portion for those unable to attend in-person.

Will Wise, group vice-president, security, public safety, transportation, and casino gaming at Reed Exhibitions (the show’s organizer), said that at the beginning of the new year, there was much chaos and uncertainty in the United States, citing the violence and civil unrest that came post-election.

“As the Biden administration took over, everybody had their fingers crossed for a way better vaccine rollout getting things calmed down,” Wise told SP&T in the weeks prior to the July event. “At that time, I was not sure what was going to happen, and if we’re going to be able to pull off doing the event later this year.”

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However, Wise said that by early March, the vaccination rollout was going very well and the organization was then able to confidently build a roadmap for the upcoming ISC West show.

“At that time too, frankly, the states like Nevada where we do the event, had a smart, balanced approach. They had metrics for event organizers,” Wise said.

In a similar vein, Global Security Exchange (GSX) 2021 will be a hybrid event taking place Sept. 27-29 that will offer a digital experience on the GSX online platform as well as an in-person event at the Orange County Convention Center (OCCC) in Orlando, Fla.

“The ASIS International Global Board of Directors and ASIS staff deliberated on this issue extensively,” said Amy Peters, senior director, events at ASIS International in an emailed statement. “We looked at global, national and regional public health updates, recommendations and pandemic guidelines for events; vaccination progress nationally and worldwide; and, we reviewed how health and safety is being addressed by our host site, the Orange County Convention Center.”

The Canadian Security Association (CANASA), recently announced plans to return to live events in 2022, starting in April in Montreal. Two shows will follow in Vancouver and Toronto. CANASA hosted two virtual Security Canada conferences during the pandemic — in December 2020 and June 2021.

“We’re probably not going to do another virtual show in December, which originally we thought might have been a possibility,” CANASA executive director Patrick Straw said. “Instead, what we probably are going to do is offer our vendor partners a series of weekly webinars like we have been doing for the last little while. We’ve been getting good turnout to them, and that really is the best route for us to go for the rest of this year.”

Straw said that CANASA has a great collaboration with its national executive and board of directors and they frequently discuss the future of their events during meetings.

“We take them on a step-by-step basis based on what’s the next thing that we’re going to be doing for the remainder of this calendar year. It’s very likely that there won’t be any face-to-face events,” Straw explained. “Unless later in the year some of the regional councils want to have an informal golf event or something like that.”

Hybrid approach

Acknowledging that there are attendees and vendors who are not ready for in-person events just yet or their companies are still vigilant about travel restrictions for their employees, Wise said that ISC West will make virtual platforms a priority.

“I do think people have appre- ciated having a lot of online education and contents during this time,” Wise said. “We are going to have the ISC virtual platform running. We are basically going to have almost all of the in-person sessions also available online for the audience — for those people internationally or that can’t travel, [they] can check that out during those dates or later on-demand.”

Added Wise: “We also feel like now digitally, we’re arguably going to do even more highlights from the show, some live streaming, breaking news today… [we have] more of that broader broadcast mentality than before.”

While many have been itching to return to in-person trade shows and events, attendees have enjoyed the virtual platforms.

Peters observed that ASIS’s online content was a major force in driving attendance, explaining that in 2020, 92 per cent of their participants stated that they thought their education sessions were “timely and of a high quality.”

“Having our content available until the end of the year for All-Access registrants was a significant plus, as 89 per cent of those attend- ees surveyed said that they planned to listen to education sessions following our event, highlighting the importance of personalization versus a one size fits all approach.

“Our content is strong and received well by security professionals because it is developed by security professionals for security professionals.”

Safe planning

As it is with most things related to COVID-19, the decision to transition to live events was not taken lightly.

According to Peters, the health and safety of GSX attendees, exhibitors, speakers, sponsors, staff and vendors is the top priority for ASIS International and the organization is working to ensure that everyone will feel safe at the venue.

“The OCCC is one of the largest venues in the U.S. to receive the Global Biorisk Advisory Council (GBAC) STAR accreditation, recognized as the third-party gold standard in cleanliness and disease prevention,” Peters explained. “The OCCC is collaborating with Orlando Health — a premier, established health-care system — to create a ground-breaking medical concierge program for conventions. The OCCC will continue to evaluate its response and consult with health and industry experts to ensure the implementation of rigorous biorisk protocols in response to the ongoing health emergency.”

To further ensure the safety of those attending, ASIS has partnered with Safe Expo — service provider for pre-event health planning support, on-site implementation, and post-event health monitoring — as an additional precaution to ensure a safe and healthy environment for those attending GSX 2021 in person.

Regarding ISC West, Wise shared that the majority of the spring was filled with contingency planning, which included frequent communications with other event organizers on what protocols need to map to CDC regulations, noting that regulations vary by state.

“These last couple of months, we have been able to say that we can go full speed ahead [with an in-person event],” Wise related. “But we made sure we’re doing it right. We’re very fortunate that all the resorts in Las Vegas are very disciplined, so our venue partner Sands Expo in the Venetian [Resort] have incredible protocols for health and safety and hygiene.”

Acknowledging the varying opinions of vaccines, Wise said that the No. 1 priority has always been to make sure that the event is safe for everyone.

For patrons who are fully vaccinated, they do not have to wear a mask, indoors or outdoors. However, those not vaccinated were expected to wear a mask throughout the duration of ISC West.

“There’s frankly no national U.S. policy on [mandating a negative COVID test],” Wise explained. “We are following CDC guidelines and the state guidelines, so there’s not a requirement of showing a negative test or vaccination, so it’s this interesting balancing act.”

Virtual wisdom

With the recent re-emergence of live events, organizers have had time to reflect over the last year and a half since they had to pivot to virtual events.

Peters said that some of the key lessons learned had to do with focusing on the experience, which she said was integral to ASIS’s approach.

“We develop and design our events around the user experience, so we are constantly asking our- selves, ‘How we can make our event come alive on screen for our global participants?’” Peters said. “GSX 2021 is a testament to that sort of design thinking and has served us extremely well. It is also what has differentiated us from many other events.”

When asked about her hopes for a return to in-person events, Peters said, “My main hope is that our audience appreciates the unique event that will be GSX 2021 and that they took full advantage of our in-person and digital offerings.”

Straw said that CANASA has the virtual event format “down to a science,” and the organization learned a lot about organizing virtual trade shows, particular the planning that has to go in ahead of time.

“We did a lot more coaching for the second [virtual event] than the first one,” Straw explained. “If you have a virtual booth and nobody knows who you are and you haven’t marketed yourself ahead of time, it’s very difficult to have a really positive experience.

“We did a couple of social events in the big Zoom format at the end of both [virtual events] that were pretty successful. We had two or three pages of people on it, and I can tell you that everybody was like, ‘Okay, this was great.’”

Wise said he is excited for the ISC West show to feel like it did prior to the pandemic, knowing that there will be a deeper appreciation for the event.

“You cannot replace the face- to-face element of walking around, or as I call it, the serendipity of meeting people in the hallway,” he said. “…I think the learning and the community within security and public safety is pretty awesome. Everybody is really committed to promoting wellbeing for their communities and companies and there’s been even more appreciation for that, too.”


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