When the ExCeL opens its doors to the gaming industry for ICE London 2023 this week, it might feel like stepping out of a gaming industry time machine.

It could be the first time since February 2020 that many delegates will have been to an event of this scale, with more than 35,000 people expected to attend across the three days.

Nobody could have predicted the future when the industry last congregated for the show with those kinds of numbers, when Covid-19 was still a whisper associated with China. Back then, there was a strong expectation for senior management to spend sizeable chunks of the year out on the road, almost like a Formula 1 team travelling from race to race during the season.

Three years later and the landscape has changed. Following a plethora of online-only events during 2020 and 2021 as the world adapted to remote working, we may now only just return to normal, following an ICE London in April of last year with a lower-than-usual attendance figure.

Whether the iGaming sector will truly go back to the way things were remains to be seen, however. In November, Terrapinn announced the cancellation of the World Gaming Executive Summit (WGES), which felt like the first significant post-Covid casualty for gaming events.

As we look ahead to a full schedule of events for 2023, one key issue stands out: is it feasible for senior execs to commit as much time and money to attending industry events as they did before the pandemic? It is a question which has provoked a torn discussion in recent times and is among the many parts of working life which may never be the same again.

A demanding schedule

While ICE London is at the forefront of everyone’s minds at the turn of the year, the schedule at a glance still appears demanding; at least if you want the full experience. iGB Affiliate London runs into the same week as ICE London, and following that, almost every month on the calendar showcases at least one event organised by one of the standout industry-event providers.

The table below, which depicts the main 2023 events after ICE week, illustrates just how hectic it can be, and that is before factoring in the preparation time required for each show.

Difficulties for online shows

Once your events schedule for the year is planned out, executives must consider what they can gain from each show. There seems to be a clear consensus across the industry that trade shows should be considered separate and may not work the same online.

Of all attendees at ICE London this year, few will have experienced as many gaming shows as Richard Thorp. Thorp is the co-founder and director of supplier RPM Gaming, but he has worked in the industry since the mid-1990s and his CV counts the likes of Ladbrokes, Blue Square and Racing Post as former employers.

When asked by iGaming NEXT whether he attended the online-only conferences that became a necessity during lockdown, he says: “I attended a few and didn’t get a lot from them. We still work with a lot of Asian operators, and I think they tend to prefer face-to-face time.

iGaming NEXT MD Pierre Lindh: “I think launching several new shows every year would be a dangerous strategy.”

“I don’t think the software is there yet and it doesn’t really work. Also, a lot of introductions are made outside the shows themselves. The shows are the place where you have the chance to meet fellow professionals, but a lot of those introductions happen at networking events in the evenings.”

Issues with online shows were magnified for businesses that had recently launched and were still trying to make a name for themselves in the market. That was the situation faced by CEO Eric Frank when trying to grow his consultancy firm Odds On Compliance, which launched in March 2021.

“Given the time we started, we had to leverage social media and LinkedIn very well and we had to adapt that business model to make connections,” says Frank. “Online webinars are obviously fantastic and a good way to get a wealth of information, but it’s far more difficult after the session when you don’t have the opportunity to walk up to people and introduce yourself. Conferences held in-person allow for that.”

A global calendar

With time proving increasingly precious for executives, event organisers must innovate, especially as the market could become saturated by the likes of Clarion Gaming (which operates ICE London, iGB Affiliate and iGB Live), SBC Gaming and SiGMA. Clarion Gaming and SBC Gaming were approached for comment for this article.

SiGMA alone runs six shows (the only one not mentioned in the table above is SiGMA Africa in January), with the aim of covering separate geographical regions.

Eman Pulis, founder of SiGMA Group, tells iGaming NEXT: “Since there’s already a great number of events happening in North America run by G2E, Clarion, iGaming Next and SBC, we decided to focus on our six shows rather than create more of the same in North America. Three of our shows are considered more international, while the other three have a more regional focus.”

One issue of this approach is whether it’s feasible for any company to travel to shows across several regions, especially while keeping a close eye on costs, as is the trend in 2023. On a very different scale, the pandemic showed employers did not necessarily need their staff to work in an office for 40 hours a week to achieve the same levels of productivity.

Similar logic can be applied to external meetings, and of course, trade shows. It could prove more difficult to convince bosses to dedicate a large portion of their budgets for conferences these days.

Pierre Lindh, managing director of iGaming Next, thinks we may have reached a crossroads.

He believes the curve will have to flatten when it comes to creating new trade shows. “I think launching several new shows every year would be a dangerous strategy,” he says. “I don’t think the winners will be the ones who can organise the most shows. It will be about nurturing two or three shows and building them into something great.”

Odds On Compliance founder Eric Frank: “We will certainly have to re-evaluate which events are right for us. Who are the absolutely critical people you want to be in front of?”

That is not a view that Pulis necessarily agrees with. When asked about the dangers of increasing the number of shows that SiGMA has to offer, he says: “Gaming has truly become global these days and if a company wishes to operate in multiple markets, then it simply must find the time and resources to learn those markets, and learn to do business with the people behind those markets.”

It’s not just time in the schedule that executives must think about. The next matter to consider is how companies manage their annual budget for shows; particularly if they are a start-up. When factoring in the cost of travel and accommodation, day-to-day expenses, tickets to attend, and the expense of showcasing your products when you have a stand, it all adds up, to say the least.

It is commonly whispered in the industry that some companies spend six or seven figures on their stands alone at ICE London. Even when shows are weighted towards conferences rather than expos, this can be financially challenging and arguably difficult to justify.

Lindh of iGaming NEXT says: “We wanted to do events that aren’t necessarily in direct competition with SiGMA. What we figured out is that SiGMA and most other events are 90% exhibition and 10% content.

“The conference part is usually in the backroom. We thought, why not flip it around and see if the industry would like it? We set out on a thought leadership-first strategy, which we felt didn’t really exist at the time.

“Before the pandemic, the only way to really consume thought-leadership content was through ICE VOX, but it cost about €1,000 to attend. We decided to put it out there without that cost and monetise through advertising. We felt that model was a lot more relevant to the situation at the time.”

Going forward

Before we discover the full extent of the value of industry shows for the remainder of the 2020s, it seems we may see an initial period of testing the water, with companies attending international events on a regular basis in what could be described as the first full year of so-called normality since the pandemic.

What comes after this will be the real test, when companies can gauge their budget versus reward outcome and benchmark spend against pre-pandemic activities.

Odds On Compliance co-founder Frank says: “We will certainly have to re-evaluate which events are right for us. Who are the absolutely critical people you want to be in front of? I think those in-person opportunities are invaluable. They need to be taken advantage of, but it’s just a question of how many we can fit into one schedule.”

Thorp, meanwhile, is adamant that trade shows provide value, especially when top-tier operators are in attendance. “Depending on their focus, I think people should still go to as many events as they can,” he says. “I expect we will see more conferences across Africa and Asia in the next few years particularly.

He continues: “Overall, I think it’s about going to the events where the right people will be. Sometimes it’s B2B people selling to other B2B people, so you’ve got to have the right mix.”

In 2023, the pressure is on events companies to prove that in-person conferences are just as important today as they always were.

ICE, ICE, baby!

Going back as far as my LinkedIn history cares to show me, all I can find since December 2021 are posts about the recently held ICE London 2022 event. People have had little else to do for four months – myself included – so all we did was talk about going to London and how much fun it would be to be reunited with old friends and faces.

Clarion were finally able to put on a show, and they did just that.

The only problem with the show was that companies pulled out. I spoke to the MD of Clarion at the event (podcast coming soon), who was very happy about the turnout. He wasn’t embellishing or laying anything on; the turnout was decent, and the place was busy.

The pre- and post-show events were well attended, and people were genuinely happy to be touching base, rather than Zoom calling each other in a shirt with no pants on. Just me?

Once the first big land-based provider pulled out, however, the rest began to fall like dominos. Without Novomatic, Merkur decided to jump ship. Then came some big online absences, with Evolution a huge one, especially as on a recent YouTube 90-minute investor event, all they could talk about was showing new releases at ICE, and how every single game would be the best game ever. And to be fair, they probably will be.

Phil Pearson: “Usually, after ICE, my feet are on fire and I want to sleep for a month. After this one, the event felt unfinished.”

Companies continued to drop, and N9-10 and S6-10 were left as sort of a shrine to the minimalist movement. Just a load of wires and misplaced dreams to be found.

The problem was that with the drop in people attending, a lot of prospective clients fell through too. I spoke to many people during and after the event, and even ran a poll online to get some feedback on the quality of attendee.

Over 65% of respondents said they expected more people, or that those in attendance could not be classed as “new business”. I am also on that bandwagon. We met a lot of existing clients, a lot of suppliers and more payment providers than I knew what to do with – but the lack of new business there was telling.

As the big land-based players dropped out, the people who would attend for that reason, also did not show. People left the event on Wednesday to go home for Easter. Thursday was pretty much a morgue, and the show closed at 3pm, which felt like a school day.

Usually, after ICE, my feet are on fire and I want to sleep for a month. After this one, and after getting similar feedback from the industry, the event felt unfinished. It definitely feels like the show is back, and there is an opportunity to get back to normal, but people are not fully taking it.

Covid-19 has changed the world for the long term. Nothing is more apparent after reviewing ICE than that. Marketing must now adapt to find customers without relying on trade shows and events such as this once every few weeks. That being said, ICE will always remain the benchmark and people will always want to attend.

Meeting clients is very valuable, as is getting the insight into what others are doing, and discovering what content and third-party possibilities there are. But filling the ExCel each year will be a struggle going forwards, with more trade shows popping up on the calendar and regulation creating unique shows and conferences for each market.

In the next month alone, we have, or have had, CasinoBeats, iGaming NEXT NYC and NIGA (for which I would immediately recommend a name change).

The market is now flooded with events, and ironically, flooding is what happens when ICE melts.

Phil Pearson manages operational and commercial responsibilities as COO of Malta-based solutions provider iGaming Group.