The decision to cancel the huge NPE2021 show, or at least halt the in-person side of it, is a big deal in the plastics industry.
The organizers of the triennial show didn't really have a choice. With daily death counts from COVID-19 setting records in our almost yearlong pandemic, exhibitors were increasingly nervous that the May show could be held safely and that it could be commercially successful.
Some, like Novatec Inc. CEO Conrad Bessemer, publicly worried that vaccines could not be rolled out to enough people in time. In an email to show organizers, he asked if an event that normally draws 50,000-plus registered attendees risked becoming a superspreader event.
So the show organizer, the Plastics Industry Association, said it had to cancel the show to protect public health. Not that it was an easy decision.
We think it was good they made the decision on the early side, more than five months out from the May 17-21 show, so companies can plan and minimize sunk costs like hotels and exhibition planning.
For those not familiar with what an NPE looks like, think of it like a once-every-three-years version of CES, the electronics show in Las Vegas, but for North America's plastics industry.
It's five days of technology introductions, catching up with colleagues and friends, and networking at conferences on challenges common to the whole industry.
As well it's a chance to kick the tires on potential equipment and see what the 2,100 exhibiting companies have to offer as they spread out over the entire Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Fla., one of the largest venues in the United States.
Some argue NPE is often an economic shot in the arm for the industry.
Bill Wood, the Plastics News economics editor and industry consultant, said historical data from previous NPEs points to double-digit increases in machinery investment in an NPE year, compared with the previous year. (Disclosure: Plastics News has published daily issues at NPE since 1991, so it's a business opportunity for us as well.)
Given the uncertainty of the pandemic, it's hard to know what, if any, economic impact there'll be from canceling this year.
But if the pandemic had been under control enough to have NPE, you have to think the show would have had a special meaning this year and help people look forward to better times.
The next NPE won't be until 2024. By then, it'll be six years from the last one. Show organizers say the logistics of the huge event make it impossible to reschedule. It requires nearly a month when you add in setup and teardown time, plus only two venues, Orlando and Chicago, have the required electrical capacity.
We did learn this week that at one point, a window opened to potentially have a half-size version of the show in November in Orlando, in only one of show halls. But without certainty that the virus would be controlled by then and challenges in shrinking the event by 50 percent, organizers said they did not see that as a viable option.
Questions remain about the impact of canceling. For starters, how will the show handle refunds of money already paid by exhibitors? From what we're hearing, that could be contentious.
The plastics association told exhibitors in a Jan. 8 email that it won't be refunding deposits until it settles NPE2021 obligations to the convention center, hotels and others and addresses financial implications for the association.
Companies are understandably very interested in details. The association is asking for patience.
There are implications for the plastics association's budget. It's one of the industry's two-largest trade groups in Washington, and it depends on proceeds from NPE to fund up to half its budget. It says it has reserves to last into 2022, but it's likely going to face decisions. So canceling NPE has implications for how one of the main trade groups is able to represent the sector.
Most exhibiting companies we talked to said they supported the decision to cancel the show. A few suggested exhibitor pressure played a big role in pushing the plastics association, although association leaders said health and safety remained uppermost in their minds. They said the increasingly bleak pandemic situation as December rolled on was key.
You also wonder what fallout big shows like NPE will face post-pandemic. We've all gotten more used to attending events remotely. We miss in-person work conferences, but we've also learned it's possible sometimes to get at least some of what we want from the virtual alternative. It's certainly cheaper, and in some ways it allows us to be part of more events than we could have before.
So you wonder what that could mean for trade shows down the line, too.
I guess all we know right now is there won't be an NPE2021. Beyond that, like many things in our pandemic world, it's wait and see.
Toloken is a Plastics News assistant managing editor and author of the BRICS and Plastics blog. Follow him on Twitter @Steve_Toloken.