Ticket to Ride

10/23/2020

I can’t say that I was surprised back in August to hear that the EDspaces and WeConnect shows scheduled for November had been cancelled. After all, every trade show on my calendar over the past seven months was scrubbed, and over that time I have not left the town where I live.

It was sad news nonetheless. I have been attending school supply events for over 40 years, during which time they have been a big part of my life. We built our business primarily through the contacts we made at shows, and many of my most significant friendships can also be traced back to events put together by NSSEA and EDSA.

I hate to think that I won’t see any of those old friends this year. Of course it’s possible that I won’t see them again at all, but I try not to dwell on it.

There was really no choice in terms of whether or not to cancel the shows. States and cities have ordinances these days regarding the number of people who can gather in one space, particularly indoors, and trade shows simply aren’t allowed. Even if they were, it’s not clear how many people would show up.

Over the course of this thing, it has become more and more apparent that it transmits primarily by breathing rather than touching. That probably makes the idea of staying at a hotel a little less intimidating, but it still leaves the problem of how to get there.

There are cities, especially in Middle Atlantic states, that like to point out that a third of the U.S. population is within a few hours driving distance, but I’ve rarely driven to a convention. Although a few local dealers usually do drive in, the great majority of people fly.

Who would want to get on an airplane right now? It was bad enough before.

Believe it or not, when I started traveling regularly in the late 1970s, most people actually enjoyed air travel. Seats and aisles were bigger, planes were not often full, and there was no security screening. A lot more of the flights between smaller cities were direct back then, luggage flew free, and any flight longer than one hour included a hot meal.

There was also a difference in those days that was even more significant, and that was the reservation system. Airlines used to operate the same way as hotels. You just called up and booked a flight, and if your plans changed you called back and changed it, or cancelled it. Some people didn’t make reservations at all, they simply showed up at the airport and bought a ticket.

Those of you who are too young to remember the 1970s may think that I am idealizing a past that never really existed. I will concede that there is a natural human tendency to do that, often enhanced by movies and other cultural touchstones.

If you watch a lot of old movies, for example, you might come to believe that folks during the 1930s dressed in evening clothes and hung out all night in art-deco ballrooms drinking cocktails. It was a world where you couldn’t turn around without bumping into a beautiful, madcap, runaway heiress.

Now I don’t doubt that people found ways to have fun during the Great Depression. It just doesn’t seem likely that it was so elegant.

At any rate, I do understand that nostalgia colors our view of the past, but I am not exaggerating about air travel. It really was a lot more pleasant back in the day.

Everything is a trade-off, though, so we must have gained something from giving up all those perks, right? Yes, we have.

Air travel is much cheaper than it used to be. Prior to the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, the government treated airlines like a public utility, setting fares for each route on basically a cost-plus basis. It was virtually impossible for major airlines to lose money.

After that point, the magic of competition changed everything. According to a study by Compass Lexecon, the average price of a roundtrip ticket in the United States in 1979, adjusted for inflation, was $616. By 2016, the average had dropped to $344. In terms of price-per-mile flown, the average dropped more than 40 percent between 1990 and 2016.

Personally, I would rather spend more money than have to endure an experience that I’ll dread for a week leading up to it, but I am a believer in free markets. If most people are willing to put up with discomfort and inconvenience for a few hours in order to get a cheap ride, then that is what a competitive marketplace will provide.

I had assumed that the trend would just continue indefinitely, with air travel growing ever cheaper and more horrid. Eventually we would be able to fly for about 10 bucks, but we would have to go naked, and the plane would have no heating system. Want to bring a sweater? That will be an additional $50.

Perhaps it would have gone there, but now we’ll never know. The virus has changed everything, and nothing more than air travel. In early September, United Airlines announced that it would no longer charge passengers for changing their reservations – not just for the duration of the pandemic, but permanently. The next day, American Airlines and Delta followed suit. (Southwest does not charge change fees.)

It didn’t get a lot of press at the time; it seems there were a few other things going on in the news, but this was a big deal. The fees amounted to $2.8 billion in revenue for domestic carriers in 2019, making it one of their favorite practices, and dropping it may represent a turning point.

Health concerns regarding air travel could linger for years, but even more worrisome to the airlines is the prospect that business travel may never return to the old normal. Businesses have learned to do more things remotely, saving a lot of money in the process. Some conventions and trade shows will fold their tents for good.

Eliminating the change fees could be a big help to the remaining trade associations as they try to resurrect their shows for 2021. For that to happen, companies have to start planning to attend, and that is much easier if they know they can make changes as the situation requires. If there’s one quality each of us is going to need in order to navigate through 2021, it’s flexibility.

Toy Fair, which is normally held in New York City in mid-February, has already announced its intention to move to sometime in spring. Creativation (formerly the Craft & Hobby Association Convention) which had been a January show, will become a virtual event only. 

On the other hand, the International Consumer Goods Show will be holding its convention face-to-face, in Germany, from April 17th through 20th. NAMTA, the International Art Materials Trade Association, plans to hold a flesh-and-blood convention April 23rd through 25th.

I am not opposed to virtual trade shows, and if they help the industry get through this crisis I’m all for them, but I don’t think they’re a long-term solution to the problem of how to go about assembling our industry. No matter how slick the technology becomes, it will never foster the personal connections we made at those old-fashioned trade shows.

During the Second World War there was a popular song that became a cultural touchstone in England. “We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when, but I know we’ll meet again some sunny day.”


You can e-mail Kevin at kfahy@fwpi.com.

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