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Trade Show Attendance Still 20% Below Pre-Pandemic Levels: 2023 Data Study

Published: 2023-10-05T22:55:43+0000 Author: Tyler Bethke

Key Findings

  • Trade show attendance for January through September 2023 is 20% lower compared to the same period in 2019, according to TradeXPO figures
  • Two of America’s biggest trade shows, CES (-37%) and The NAMM Show - (-59%) had significantly fewer attendees in 2023 vs. their 2019 editions
  • National Restaurant Association Show (+41%) and the NAHB International Builders' Show (+17%) successfully rebounded in 2023 to exceed their pre-pandemic turnout
  • Fashion (+67%), Agriculture (+30%), and State and County Fairs (+15%) posted higher attendance figures in 2023 than before the pandemic
  • Travel & Tourism (-78%), Spirituality & Religion (-77%), and Construction (-64%) are still significantly below their pre-pandemic attendance levels
  • State-wise, attendance has rebounded the strongest above 2019 levels in Nebraska (+61%), Hawaii (+47%), and Utah (+41%)
  • States that host the most trade shows – Nevada (-48%), Florida (-36%) and California (-26%) – haven’t rebounded to their pre-pandemic numbers
  • Based on our projections, U.S. trade show totals aren't expected to reach pre-pandemic levels until 2025

It’s fair to say that most industries were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, but if there was one industry that came to a grinding halt, it’s trade shows and conferences.

The damage done to the industry was estimated to be in the billions of dollars, and according to the EventsXPO figures, some 881 trade shows were canceled or postponed in 2020-2021.

After experimenting with virtual and hybrid formats, in-person trade shows came back. That makes sense, as even at the peak of the pandemic 70% of Americans preferred in-person events, as our own study found at the time. 

The comeback, encouraging as it has been, hasn’t been as rapid as many had hoped. Echoing the figures from the Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR), our analysis suggests that while organizers are putting on as many events as they did in 2019, the attendances haven’t yet returned to the pre-pandemic levels. Or have they?

In this study, we examine the state of trade shows in 2023 through the lens of attendance, using figures from the EventsXPO database, CEIR, Trade Shows News Network, and official trade show websites. We profile industries and locations to determine where attendance has rebounded fastest and where they still have some way to go to reach pre-pandemic levels.

Read on to see what the trade show comeback actually looks like in 2023.

Up Year-Over-Year, Still Down from 2019: Trade Show Attendance Post-Pandemic

In the first nine months of 2023 (January 1 through September 30), an estimated 12.7 million people attended the shows and conferences that have been held in the United States so far in 2023, based on the figures from the EventsXPO database.

That’s 15% more attendees that visited a trade show compared to the same period last year, but still 20% fewer than in the same period in 2019 - the last year before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Looking at the chart of trade show attendance in the last four years, there is good reason to be optimistic. Attendance numbers are going up, but at this stage, they are still considerably lower than in pre-pandemic times.

Some of America’s biggest shows are perfect examples of this recent trend. Consumer Electronics Show (CES) had 182,000 visitors in 2019, while the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) Show drew a crowd of 115,301 that same year.

In 2023, however, CES had 115,000 attendees, 37% off the pre-pandemic peak, while the NAMM show was only attended by 46,711 this year, down a significant 59% on its own 2019 record.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Of the top 25 biggest shows in the United States, according to TSNN, all 17 that already took place this year have seen an increase in attendance compared to 2022, with the average year-over-year increase at 28%.

Some shows appear to have recovered fully. National Restaurant Association’s Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show drew 60,000 attendees this year – 41% more than in 2019, while the NAHB’s (National Association of Home Builders) International Builders' Show saw a crowd of 70,000 in 2023, up 17% on its pre-pandemic figure.

Mixed Picture: Trade Show Attendance by Industry

Overall attendance may still be down compared to the highs of 2019, but much like certain trade shows, some industries are also bucking this trend.

Of the 24 industries distinguished in the EventXPO database, all show a healthy year-over-year increase in attendance of trade shows, but only four appear to be ahead of their pre-pandemic numbers.

The three industries where trade shows rebounded the best are Fashion & Beauty (+67%), Agriculture (+30%), and State and County Fairs (+15%). Trade shows that focus on Energy, such as oil, gas, or renewables, returned to their 2019 attendance levels, posting a 0.1% increase in 2023.

As for the industries that struggle the most with drawing a crowd of 2019 size, they are Travel & Tourism (-78%), Spirituality & Religion (-77%), and Construction (-64%). Health and Fitness (-63%) and Transportation (-62%) aren’t too far behind.

Industries with higher overall attendance levels, such as Business, Medical & Pharma, and Home, are doing better but still lagged between 30% and 50% in terms of trade show attendance so far in 2023, compared to the same period in 2019.

Texas Triumphs, Nevada Not There Yet: Trade Show Attendance by State

Similar to how the pace of recovery for U.S. expos and trade shows has been uneven across industries, trade show attendance is also recovering at a different pace in different parts of the country. 

Out of 30 states for which enough data is available, eight have shown growth in trade show crowds so far this year, compared to the same period in 2019. 

The most notable of them is Texas (+30%). Of the four states with the most trade shows, Texas is the only state whose 2023 numbers are ahead of the pre-pandemic estimates. The other three – Nevada (-48%), Florida (-36%) and California (-26%) – still haven’t rebounded this year.

Elsewhere, Nebraska (+61%), Hawaii (+47%), and Utah (+41%) were the states with the greatest trade show attendance growth in 2023 compared to 2019, while Virginia (-66%), Arizona (-61%), and the District of Columbia (-58%) continued to see the greatest decline.

City-level figures reflect the situation in the states more broadly. Cities in the Lone Star State, such as Fort Worth, Dallas, and Houston, have rebounded well post-pandemic, and then some.

On the other hand, trade shows in Las Vegas, NV (-35%), Orlando, FL (-49%), Chicago, IL (-45%), and New York, NY (-30%) all still have some catching up to do when it comes to attracting a similar level of attendees in 2023 as they did in 2019.

Promising Projections: Trade Show Crowds to Reach Pre-Pandemic Levels in 2025

Having the entire expo industry rebound to 2019 levels so soon after the global pandemic would have been too optimistic. However, strong year-over-year growth in 2023 and select states and industries already drawing crowds of the pre-pandemic sizes give cause for optimism.

But when will we finally be back to pre-pandemic totals? Analyzing monthly attendance figures provided by the Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR) and ShowXPO, U.S. trade shows and expos are projected to be on track to recover their attendance figures by 2025.

This rebound may have come sooner, but it wasn’t helped by macro-level factors affecting the U.S. business landscape in recent years. Recent high inflation, continued labor shortages, and struggles with remote work likely affected how much businesses (as they make up a majority of attendees) could invest in sending their employees to expos and trade shows.

Projections for the U.S. economy remain uncertain, but business confidence, on the other hand, is the highest it’s been since late 2019. Without a pandemic to put a damper on the recovery trend, expect trade shows to bounce back to their pre-pandemic crowds in 2025.

Sources and Methodology

The analysis was carried out by PromoLeaf. Attendance figures by state, industry, and city were based on the data from 4,813 trade shows taken from the EventXPO database and obtained via a paid subscription. 

Historical attendance figures and future projections were compiled using a combination of EventXPO data and Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR) data releases. 

Individual show attendance figures were taken from the official websites of each show (where possible) or from reporting in trade publications.


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