ORLANDO, Fla.—A major exhibitor is pulling out of the NPE2021 show, warning that it could become a COVID-19 superspreader event, as the organizer of the trade show says it is reviewing options and acknowledges the event could be canceled.
Auxiliary equipment maker Novatec Inc. told officials with the Plastics Industry Association, which runs the event, in a Dec. 17 email that it won't be exhibiting at the May trade fair in Orlando and urged that it be canceled because not enough people will have been vaccinated in time.
Tony Radoszewski, president and CEO of the Washington-based plastics association, said in a Dec. 18 interview that the group is still planning to have the show, which typically attracts more than 50,000 attendees over five days.
But he also said they're hearing health-related concerns from Novatec and others, so they are surveying exhibitors and reviewing options, with a plan to make a final decision in early 2021.
He said from a business standpoint, companies want to have the show, but he said it's possible health worries could lead the association to cancel.
"In light of the current activity, with what's going on COVID-related, we felt it necessary to go out and start talking with our exhibitors … to get a sense of where they are," he said. "Obviously, things are very fluid at this point in time."
The group's board of directors, which includes many exhibiting companies, will make a final decision early in 2021, possibly in January or February, because companies need time to plan for what is often a multimillion dollar expense to exhibit, Radoszewski said. The show is slated for May 17-21 at the Orange County Convention Center.
Conrad Bessemer, Novatec president and CEO, said in his email to Radoszewski, which he shared with Plastics News, that his firm also makes medical equipment like fever-sensing gear and is developing COVID-19 and influenza detection equipment for the air.
"As a result, we have an intimate knowledge regarding the pandemic and air quality issues," Bessemer wrote. "Although we have been told for some time by members of the NPE Committee that everything will be fine, it is now clear to us after much research and discussion with government and medical leaders that there is no way the majority of the population will have been vaccinated by the time of the show which would make the show and its indoor ventilation system an ideal spot for a mass spread condition."
For trade shows like NPE, companies send their most senior engineers and sales staff, Bessemer continued.
"We simply cannot put our most experienced people in harms way when in fact many of these people are immune compromised or have conditions such as diabetes and/or hypertension that are known to (contribute) to COVID-related deaths," Bessemer wrote.
He expects other exhibitors to follow suit.
"In our survey of competitors, there are many, many others that intend to not participate and cannot understand why anyone would send anyone to the event," Bessemer wrote.
He sent his letter as the U.S. experienced the deadliest day of the pandemic yet, with nearly 3,300 deaths and a record-high number of cases reported in a day with 232,086 more people infected.
As of the morning of Dec. 17, the total number of U.S. cases topped 17 million and more than 308,000 Americans had died.
Radoszewski said the safety of those attending the show is the highest priority of the association and companies.
"Every exhibitor that I've talked to right now and it's been, you know, not 1,000, but it's been more than a handful, the first thing they say is 'Tony, we really want to have the show,'" he said. "'It's important to us, it's the biggest show in North America, and North America right now is one of the strongest markets for machinery in the world.' So they're very sensitive to that.
"And then they say, 'The other challenges we have is what's going to be the situation in terms of the pandemic at that point in time, that would allow us to, No. 1, bring our employees into the booth to work it, and then secondly, how many of our customers are going to attend?'" he said. "The No. 1 concern they have is the safety and well being of their employees and their customers."
Bessemer wrote that he does not believe it makes sense to have the show, pointing to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
"The CDC has advised against events of this type and this size and frankly we cannot understand why (the association) would ever put its members' health and system in harms way and jeopardize the talent of this industry with viral transmission," Bessemer wrote.
Italy show delayed
One other major plastics show planned for May, the Plast 2021 fair in Milan has been pushed back seven weeks to June 22-25. Like NPE, Plast is held every three years. It had been slated for May 4-7.
But Radozewski, repeating earlier comments from a September interview, said that it's not possible to move NPE, because of its size at more than 1 million square feet of exhibition space, and because there are only two or three exhibition grounds in the United States that are large enough to host it.
Bessemer said the timing of the vaccine rollout needs to be given greater consideration by the U.S. trade group. Many of Novatec's distributors and customers do not plan to attend, he added.
"There is simply no science that our experts and advisers can find that makes any large group indoor setting, and especially the Convention Center, a safe space for our employees until at least 70 percent of the attendees are vaccinated, which nobody can promise or safely assume today," Bessemer wrote.
The earliest vaccinations for "average" people won't be given until the April-June time frame under the best of conditions, Bessemer said, and some programs need a secondary booster three to four weeks later.
"Nobody predicts that 70 percent of the country will have immunity by that early date of the show," Bessemer said. "To that end, we see no way that this show can possibly be a successful event and may in fact contribute to viral infection and/or death even in a deeply contracted state."
Novatec plans to put its NPE2021 budget toward NPE2024, Bessemer told Radoszewski.
"We feel that your contract with us in light of these conditions is indefensible and have been advised to ignore all cancellation provisions because they simply do not apply in the situation that the country finds itself in right now," Bessemer wrote.
Novatec will be notifying others in the industry of its stance on NPE2021, he added.
"We also strongly urge the organization to do the right thing and shut down the 2021 event in light of the pandemic and the fact that by the time of the show 350,000 people will have died in this country," Bessemer said.
He said Novatec plans to have a virtual showroom of equipment it would have exhibited at the show.
Not having the show could have a big financial impact on the Washington trade association.
NPE provides a significant part of the association's budget. Financial challenges with previous NPEs, like the 2009 show held during the financial crisis, led to cutbacks and layoffs in the group.
The association told the Internal Revenue Service in its 2018 tax return, the most recent available, that NPE "generates a surplus (and) this surplus funds deficit budgets in the off years."
The group's expenses have been around $20 million annually in recent years and its IRS returns suggest that a significant share of its revenue is from NPE.
"If we don't have the show, and we don't bring in the revenue, it's going to be very challenging for us," Radozewski said. "We are putting plans in place right now to manage. The good thing is we are in a strong financial position today, so the question would be, how do we manage going forward until we start the next cycle for NPE2024."