By Rich Vallaster, Director of Marketing
It is hard to believe it has been three years since we walked the halls of Congress for Legislative Action week. Much has changed in the events business and the world, for that matter. One thing remains clear, the need to advocate lawmakers and policy influencers on the importance and economic impact of the events and trade show industries has only grown.
The Capitol Hill Experience
Each time I participate, I reflect on the “issues of the day” and the political tone in our country. Unfortunately, this year there seems to be even more divisive than in the past. We face a potential recession, inflation, supply chain issues, workforce challenges, geopolitical unrest, and uncertain variants ahead of us. But regardless of the obstacles (past, present and future), our time with each lawmaker is so essential. As a Maryland resident, I was joined by clients, partners and industry friends working as constituents and voters to those actively setting policy.
Each meeting was typically an introduction of ourselves, a reminder of the issues important to ECA (us) and to understand the representatives’ knowledge of both the events industry and the legislation. It is always encouraging when the legislators or their staffers comprehend the business, co-sponsored past or present legislation, or review the bills of interest to us on some level in advance. Even more powerful and humbling moments where we shared how deeply the pro-longed pandemic and recovery have affected our businesses, events and clients. Connecting and bringing context to these bills and the vast financial tentacles are powerful.
ECA Legislative Days Virtual Advocacy
Ironically as we advocated for the importance of in-person events – we were once again virtual this year. Each presenter has already been attending and organizing events, some for well over a year. And while we all know it creates more opportunities to participate for those who typically have to travel to this event, there is no replacement for the in-person exchange, handshake and face-to-face opportunity in Washington, DC.
Before we left each meeting, it was essential to always ask for their support or co-sponsorship of any of the bills presented. Many will provide assurance they will investigate it further, while others make it clear they will support it. This year we certainly heard more about the upcoming election cycle that impacted the near term. Regardless of their intentions, it is what we can do to help the industry. We also follow up on our meetings by sharing additional information and providing answers to any outstanding questions to further stay in front.
So, what’s Important to Event Professionals?
The road to recovery. CEIR reported in their latest Q1 2022 data that the industry is still down 37.9% from pre-pandemic levels. It is why we wanted to share ECA’s 3-Point Recovery Plan (as summarized below from information provided by ECA).
Point 1: Small business support is paramount as small businesses are the backbone of the face-to-face business events sector with 99% of all business events companies being small businesses. Additionally, 80% of the 1.7 million exhibitors at exhibitions and conferences nationwide are small businesses themselves. One program that helped keep staff on the payroll over the last two years was the Employee Retention Tax Credit, or ERTC. While the ERTC was slated to run through the end of 2021, last November Congress retroactively took away the Q4 2021 ERTC benefit, midway through the quarter, to pay for another bill. As a result, our small business got a retroactive tax increase and a complex, frustrating process to reconcile the promised benefit that they had taken away through no fault of their own. H.R.6161, the ERTC Reinstatement Act, which would ensure that Congress keeps its promise to small businesses by restoring the Q4 2021 ERTC benefit.
Point #2: Pandemic Risk Insurance
As COVID-19 struck, many exhibition and conference organizers were able to keep the lights on thanks to the communicable disease coverage within their event cancellation insurance. This coverage is particularly critical as costs for events begin to accrue at least one year in advance… and often several years in advance. Now more than ever, the events industry needs coverage to help mitigate the risk of future pandemics, but the market for this type of insurance has completely collapsed. Like the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act program that Congress passed after 9/11, we need a public-private program that will help us get the insurance that we need. That’s why ECA was asking for support of H.R.5823, the Pandemic Risk Insurance Act.
Point #3: International Travel
For many events, international exhibitors and attendees are vital to the success of face-to-face events (some events had more than 25% of their participants traveling from overseas). But while the U.S. has been reopened to vaccinated international travelers, there are still policies in place that are keeping our international audience at home.
These days, getting a B-1 or B-2 visa to visit the U.S. can be a nightmare. When the U.S. reopened to vaccinated international travelers last November, the average wait time for a visa interview in the top 10 markets for U.S. visitors (Mexico, China, Brazil, India, Columbia, et al.) was 344 days, nearly a whole year. Today, it is even worse… 419 days, or 75 days longer (or another 2 ½ months), That wait isn’t to get a visa, it’s only for the required in-person interview, which is only one part of the long, cumbersome, and opaque process. Given the lead times required to exhibit at a face-to-face event, this means many international exhibitors and buyers are unable to participate in U.S. events, and why international inbound travel is still just 28% of what it was in 2019. While Congress included some helpful provisions in the omnibus bill that passed earlier this year, much more needs to be done. ECA encourages important oversight roles to ensure that the State Department is doing everything it can to urgently work through the visa application and interview backlog at embassies and consulates. Additionally, ECA recommends that Congress adopt common-sense policies such as (1) using videoconference technology for low-risk visa interviews, (2) prioritizing visa processing resources to U.S. embassies and consulates in top markets for U.S. visitors, and (3) developing new visa processing efficiencies for medium-to-large groups, including face-to-face business event exhibitors and attendees.
Local Impact – Global Reach
It is staggering to think that B2B events support 6.6 million jobs and contribute 396 billion dollars to U.S. GDP. In Maryland alone (my residence and home of Personify’s Columbia, MD office), there were 35,648 events jobs supported and 4.4 billion of economic impact to the state. 99% of those companies are small businesses and 80% of the 1.7 million exhibitors nationwide are small businesses.
How Can You Get Involved?
Advocating for your industry is EVERYONE’S job. Don’t worry if you have no experience. I certainly didn’t during my first Legislative Week. Even all these years later, I still get nervously excited about making our case. I remind myself that the efforts we have worked on in the past do make a difference for our industry.
So, it is time to get involved – yes, today. A colleague and now industry friend Tommy Goodwin, Vice president of Government Affairs at ECA has taught me we have to approach lobbying as a yearlong activity. It is much harder to ask for help when you aren’t top of mind in the myriad of thousands of priorities that cross our legislators’ minds. Learn more here or simply reach out to me and I will get you connected!