The 2020 SEMA Show – Is It Happening?

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Rumors are swirling about the 2020 SEMA Show in Las Vegas. I speak with industry leaders, the LVCVA, and SEMA’s VP of Events to some answers and insights.

UPDATE: The 2020 SEMA Show has been canceled and I’ve followed up with SEMA and insiders. Read more about it here.

Since the Great Pause of 2020 started back in March and automotive events and races were rescheduled or even canceled, many were worried about what would happen with the 2020 SEMA Show. It is the biggest event in the automotive aftermarket that reached hundreds of thousands every year to show the latest new products, start relationships with exhibitors and buyers, and just look at some of the most amazing machinery to be built just for this show. Everyone that has expressed concern has had every right to ask if the show will happen considering both of those facts. It also helps lead to rumors, both positive and negative, that end up only to serve up confusion and frustration for everyone involved.

A few weeks before this article went live, another major show that also takes place at the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC) – the 2021 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) – announced that it would switch to an all-digital format. Upon this news and with only a couple of months to go before the SEMA Show starts, new rumors of cancellations and formats sprung up like weeds after a rain. My own frustrations with those rumors are what lead me to ask industry leaders for their thoughts as well as the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA), and SEMA’s Vice President of Events, Tom Gattuso, for official word on the 2020 SEMA Show.

What is the state of the 2020 SEMA Show

Image – SEMA Photo
Officially, at the time of publication, “The 2020 SEMA Show is set to take place on November 3rd to the 6th in Las Vegas, NV,” said Tom Gattuso, the Vice President of Events at SEMA. The show is still on at this point, but things do remain fluid. SEMA has also stressed that the health and safety of visitors is their main priority with Mr. Gattuso saying, “you will see the results of months of work put into practice. We will have several measures put in place to minimize and prevent the spreading of viruses: all individuals will be required to wear face coverings, there will be one-way aisles, and hand sanitizing stations throughout the venue, and more.”

That is not going to sit well with some industry leaders, as one who asked to remain anonymous put it, “All the protocols in the world won’t matter when none of it is being used.” This was in reference to the now normal security measures put in place after the Route 91 shootings in Nevada when metal detectors and stricter security was put in place at all entrances. “Before the end of day one,” the person continued, “they were running the lines straight through – inexplicably holding phones and bags over our heads – and the machines were going off the whole time.” It is going to be a monumental task to enforce all of these practices for a show of 150,000-plus people.

Reginald Wynn, sales manager of Turbonetics, expressed his own opinions but said they weren’t that of the entire company nor of Wabtec, “I feel like SEMA has no choice but to ‘say’ that they will impose new sanitation guidelines.” He added, “Hopefully, it goes nothing like the new security guidelines that they have imposed over the last couple of years. My main issue is how does SEMA think that it is ok to have this event when, as a nation, we can’t even attend sporting events, concerts, or go watch a movie in a theater?”

Frank Schwartz of Advanced Automotive Consulting Services, was more positive, “I have no concerns about SEMA’s health standards and procedures.” However, he was quick to add, “I have zero confidence a significant portion of attendees will follow them and I do not believe that SEMA has the wherewithal or desire to make it a significant issue. I see this in the same way major chains have relaxed their viewpoint on forcing masks on customers as it has been unsafe for their employees to be the ones to impose the requirement. In turn, they relented on those requirements.”

How Were the Protocols and Procedures Developed?

Image – SEMA Photo
First, I reached out to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA) to see what their requirements were for conventions. A spokesperson stated that they have published a comprehensive health and safety plan that outlines their initiatives, which you can read here. “The plan was developed in collaboration with health officials and key stakeholders after extensive, thoughtful research on health and safety protocols and industry best practices,” the spokesperson added. It should be noted that the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC) is pursuing the Global Biorisk Advisory Council (GBAC) STAR certification, which is a part of the International Sanitary Supply Association (ISSA) – a trade association for the cleaning industry.

Mr. Gattuso added, “There are many health and safety guidelines put forth by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) that are the foundation of any safety plan. We have also been active in workgroups within the tradeshow and events industry sharing best practices as well as consulting with key stakeholders in Las Vegas that were advising individuals, like hotels, with their reopen plans. The measures put in place follow all these best practices from health authorities and guidance the experts we worked with. We are confident we can create a safe event where the industry will be able to do business.”

Frank Schwartz says more should be done if a live show happens, “they should restrict entry to a limited number of people by making the bar to entry higher. Split the event up to multiple smaller shows over a longer period, limit it to buyers and media that are US citizens but allow overseas manufacturers to attend.”

Image – SEMA Photo
Mr. Wynn, on the other hand, thinks that the show should only return when there is a vaccine. “I personally don’t see any travel bans lifted until then,” he said. “Most of us rely on the show to talk to these international customers and with them not being able to attend the show takes away from the value the SEMA show brings.” Many other I have spoken to agree that a live show in 2020 shouldn’t happen at all, as another industry leader speaking anonymously stated, “Bump it to 2021. It’s not just about COVID-19 safety but also international attendance that is not currently possible.”

SEMA, on the other hand, doesn’t see the demand to cancel the 2020 show. “As a nonprofit trade association,” said Mr. Gattuso, “we are guided by a volunteer board of directors that is made up of industry businesses. The board represents the membership and directs staff on decisions, such as whether to continue planning the SEMA Show.” SEMA says that it bases this off of data and research that indicates a strong interest in the industry to keep the show live in November. “We know that 1,600 exhibiting companies have signed up to participate in the upcoming event and buyers from all over the world continue to sign up, as well,” says Mr. Gattuso. Even so, the industry members I have spoken to and seen comment have pointed out that North Hall and South Hall – both upper and lower – have seen booth spaces open daily from cancellations. Central Hall hasn’t seen the same exodus to this point, though.

The other issue with international buyers and exhibitors is on SEMA’s radar, too. “Travel restrictions have presented a huge hurdle for the SEMA Show,” Mr. Gattuso stated, “While we are confident that the safety measures that we have planned will create an environment where business can be conducted safely, regulations and restrictions such as that are difficult to overcome.” He mentions that there are alternative options being developed for those who absolutely can’t make it saying, “(these) will make it possible for industry professionals to participate in the SEMA Show virtually. They will be able to see the new product debuts, engage with other professionals and do business, from anywhere in the world.”

What About Those Outside the Industry who Participate

There are many businesses that operate during the SEMA Show that aren’t a part of the automotive aftermarket industry. Food vendors, security, and janitorial are the ones most people see. The biggest one, however, is in charge of setup and teardown: the Freeman Company. “With thousands of exhibitors, Freeman plays a vital role in the success of the SEMA Show and employs thousands of workers during the event,” said Mr. Gattuso, “Since the pandemic hit, many of their workers have been furloughed and are looking forward to getting back to work and are eager for the show to take place. Freeman has been supportive of our efforts to make that happen.”

What If an Exhibitor Wants to Cancel, Regardless of what SEMA Does?

Image – SEMA Photo
Fortunately, SEMA is allowing exhibitors the chance to cancel up to a month before the show is scheduled. “Earlier this year when the Coronavirus was just emerging,” said Mr. Gattuso, “the SEMA Board of Directors approved several changes to help exhibitors and minimize their risks. Among those changes was allowing exhibitors the ability to receive a full refund for the cost of their booth, through September 1st.” With the situation being so fluid, it makes it hard to schedule anything at the moment but SEMA has stated they will remain flexible and assist exhibitors for as long as possible before it’s too late to stop. “Afterall,” says Mr. Gattuso, “the mission of SEMA is to help its members and business to succeed and prosper.”

What if Las Vegas or Nevada says the 2020 SEMA Show can’t happen?

Image – SEMA Photo
As many have seen, all it takes is an uptick in cases to get a state or city to drastically change their stance on events with large crowds. What is the contingency if that happens with the city of Las Vegas or even the entire state of Nevada? Mr. Gattuso says SEMA has a few plans for that and other last-minute issues, “We have some exciting alternatives in the works and have been working on many parallel scenarios. Even as we continue planning for the SEMA Show, the 2020 event will have a robust digital component.”

A Digital SEMA Show

Image – SEMA Photo
If there is a “digital show” in the plans, why not just do that? We’ve seen digital trade shows in the past and even CES is going that route for 2021. Why can’t SEMA do it for 2020? “Virtual events are not new,” Mr. Gattuso said, “and they certainly do not compare and will never replace in-person trade shows. But the automotive specialty equipment industry relies on being able to connect and showcase new products in the fall.” This was also the same views as a few insiders, too, as one stated to me, “I wouldn’t support a virtual show. It’s not the same since people in our industry go to shows like SEMA for face time and after-hours engagement as much or more so than they go for the actual show.”

Mr. Schwartz agreed, “I have participated in other virtual shows and they are not very good. My number one reason for attending is having a deep conversation with someone I happen to bump into somewhere during the week. This does not and cannot happen at virtual events unless you are a speaker.”

Mr. Wynn, on the other hand, says the technology is there and SEMA already has used it. “This is the solution,” he said, “the iCast Show (JB note: a fishing sports trade show) was able to successfully pull this off. Even some of the more internet savvy exhibitors and manufacturers did special product releases during previous SEMA Shows by utilizing their social media platforms. I honestly don’t think anyone would be missing as much as they think they would.”

Is a 2020 SEMA Show in the Best Interest of the Industry?

Image – SEMA Photo
It’s not hard to look at the situation from the outside, taking everything we’ve seen with the Great Pause and the pandemic so far, and feel that SEMA is possibly not working to the best interests of the industry. As an insider stated to me, “SEMA is already seen as an ‘old-school’ organization and this just furthers the backwards thinking. Even if the safety concerns were resolved by November, the show’s attendance will be too low and valueless to make it worthwhile to attend.”

Mr. Wynn, though, does feel that SEMA is trying, “I think they trying to act in the interest of they industry, as they have reached out to me asking for my opinion on having the show outside or virtually.” Mr. Schwartz does see SEMA as able to work a show safely and that is in the interest of the industry, but adds, “it involves changes to the event that I am afraid will damage the profit potential (for exhibitors and buyers) of the show.”

What Should SEMA Do?

Image – SEMA Photo
Each leader and insider I spoke to did have advice to pass along to SEMA about the SEMA Show moving forward. The anonymous insider stated, “Cancel the show and stop the bleeding now. It will be inevitably canceled at this point, anyhow. This short timeframe will also force companies to either do a half-ass, last-minute show or waste time and resources paying for one they cannot or will not attend. Stop putting that on member companies, many of whom can barely afford the show on a good year.”

Mr. Schwartz advises that SEMA should proceed with caution. “Be very careful. If you don’t have the show and business goes on: they have found out they don’t need you. If you have the show and it goes wrong: it will damage attendance and reputation for a very long time. If you do it just right and manage or limit expectations: you will come back next year stronger than ever.” Mr. Schwartz point has been experienced before. Just after 9/11 and the recession, the show looked like a ghost town and the energy was low. The following year, there were more exhibitors, and everyone was back in spirits many haven’t seen in a long time and that energy continued up until 2020.

Image – SEMA Photo
Mr. Wynn has spoken to someone at SEMA and pointed out that they have even sent out surveys to exhibitors, but explained to me, “This would have marked the 42nd consecutive year that we have displayed at the show. It’s just a bummer that, as of right now, SEMA doesn’t see that cancelling the show is in the best interest of the industry.”

To close, Mr. Gattuso pointed out again that, “the health and safety of our visitors is our main priority. This year, more than any other year, it is especially imperative that manufacturers can showcase their new products and connect with buyers in November. The SEMA Show is well positioned on the calendar to do that and will play a critical role in helping businesses grow in 2021.”

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Image – SEMA Photo
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