Mark Hoper, senior vice president of exhibitions and media at FMA.Click image to enlargeby Michael Ouellette

After a gruelling 18 months of distancing, isolation and frustrating digital meetings, FABTECH 2021 in Chicago is more than just an event, it’s a sign for the manufacturing industry that we are returning to business as usual.

FABTECH—one of the 10 largest tradeshows in North America, is happening. And while this year’s show is set to launch in Chicago in just a matter of days (Sept. 13-16, 2021), the story of how it came to be began back in March 2020.

At that time, Mark Hoper, senior vice president of exhibitions and media at FMA, was in Mexico City finalizing details of FABTECH Mexico. The word “COVID” was starting to trickle into the national consciousness, but there was little understanding of how serious an event it was destined to become.

“I called the home office to warn them that maybe we weren’t going to be able to have this show,” says Hoper. “Within 24 hours of that call, border access between the U.S. and Europe was shut down. We were nervous about getting back stateside and decided to leave.”

Luckily, he had no problems. But the very next day, there were 10-hour delays through customs at airports nationwide. 

The situation quickly turned into an existential global crisis, forcing the cancellation of FABTECH Mexico, FABTECH Canada and FABTECH Las Vegas, along with virtually every other trade show around the world.

As with any major event, and especially one the size of FABTECH, planning takes many months. In the process of cancelling the 2020 shows, FMA was still planning the 2021 show in Chicago, but that didn’t last long. 

“By the middle of 2020 the severity was clear and there was a lot of anxiety from exhibitors because they had to start investing money into the show before they knew if it would even go ahead,” says Hoper. 

As of November 2020, FMA was in serious discussions with the city of Chicago and McCormick Place, and there were a lot more questions than answers. 

“Chicago thought we were going to be able to have the show, because at that point vaccinations had started,” he said. Illinois had laid out a five-phase plan and the last phase was when vaccinations were forecast to hit 70 per cent. At that point, herd immunity would set in and there would be no restrictions. 

As those conversations continued through March, the 2021 Chicago Auto Show, a special edition of the event which was originally scheduled for February 2021 and cancelled, emerged as a litmus test for Hoper to gauge the chances of FABTECH getting a green light, and he watched those developments keenly. It was scheduled to take place July 15-19, and seeing how the city managed this show would give Hoper strong indications of how FABTECH would be treated. 

“At that point, Chicago felt good about it and told the auto show they would be able to have the event. Not long after that the city officially said yes to FABTECH as well. That was really the first time we got the rubber stamp that we were going to be able to do it,” says Hoper. 

By the end of May, vaccinations were going well, positive tests and hospitalizations were on the decline, so Illinois planned to move into phase five on June 11, essentially removing restrictions and safety processes. Just a few days later FMA held a press conference at McCormick Place officially confirming FABTECH was a go and that exhibitors and attendees should feel good about making plans, without any safety protocols to contend with.

Back to business
Now, it’s business as usual and no restrictions are expected. Which is important, because setting up any trade show—particularly one the size of FABTECH Chicago—is essentially controlled chaos. With about 2,000 exhibitors needing access to the hall, loading 18 million pounds of freight and swarming into 50,000 hotel rooms, any restrictions would amplify the chaos. 

“In a situation like this year, where you’ve got government doing its best to react to a once-in-a-lifetime situation, you get a whole lot of uncertainty, and that’s the worst place to be,” laments Hoper. “It was frustrating, no question about it. Not only from our perspective of planning and producing the show, but certainly from the exhibitors as well.” 

Indeed, exhibiting companies are spending money to get ready for the show well in advance, and that’s money they will never get back if its cancelled. They manufacture the machines they demonstrate well ahead of time and maybe have a $250,000 booth and display materials that need to be ordered, built and shipped, and that’s just the beginning. 

“I visited a major exhibitor in early May 2020 and he was looking at 10,000 sq. ft. of booth and probably almost US$2.5 million total investment in the show, and that’s a lot of money already spent, so you can imagine, in his mind, he really needs this show to happen,” says Hoper. Talk about pressure, but Hoper promises it’s full steam ahead now. 

Celebration time
Hoper believes the 2021 event is going to have a celebratory atmosphere, because people on the supply side as well as the manufacturing side are excited to get out and do some business. 

“FABTECH is kind of like the Superbowl for our industry. It’s once a year where all the suppliers get together, so there’s a lot of opportunity for networking amongst exhibitors and attendees, many of whom are dealing with similar issues. How will they deal with these issues? FABTECH gives them that platform, in a face-to-face environment that hasn’t been available in essentially two years, so there’s a lot of excitement out there. I think it’s going to be a celebration,” he says. 

What to expect at FABTECH 2021
Buyers must see the equipment they plan to buy to compare options, because they are making million-dollar decisions. Indeed, relationship is a huge factor when spending that kind of money. At FABTECH this year, attendees will finally be able to do that (as of press time, there are no plans for a mask mandate). Suppliers will have the chance to cement those relationships, impossible to do through zoom calls and virtual demonstrations. 

Aside from the show floor exhibits, FABTECH will feature 150 free educational sessions, panel discussions and keynotes covering many important topics. There will be more than 500 new launches or debuts this year and, for a lucky few who take the plunge early, the chance to acquire pieces of equipment that have not been available for sale because they were built specifically for the show. The equipment will be shipped straight from the show floor to the plant, negating the current six- to eight-month lead times. 

“This is peers talking to peers—35,000 of your very best friends conducting business as usual,” beams Hoper, excited for the opportunities that arise from these shows. “There’s a lot of opportunity that happens at FABTECH. When planning for this event, budget yourself another half day and you will be very happy you did.” SMT

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