In early 2020, while the pandemic was battering the event industry with its first wave, the industry got enrolled in a crash course in technology that would change things forever.
Many events were able to ‘pivot’ successfully. Virtual events were a solution for content-driven programs. Webinars existed before, many saw the benefits of connecting online while we figured out the virus’ path.
Event professionals were able to transfer their offline skill set online. Of course, not without challenges. The learning curve was quite substantial but things did work out.
Happy ending right? Not so fast.
There was and there is a group of event professionals that did not always find virtual to be a natural extension of their events: trade show organizers.
Why? A few reasons:
- Connection driven. trade shows are mostly driven by high-touch encounters between attendees and exhibitors. You walk the trade show floor, you stop at a booth with an interesting product or service. You get to touch a product, watch a demo with live sales representatives you can ask questions too. It’s a very interactive environment.
- Size matters. trade shows capitalize on their ability to attract thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands of people in a specific industry. The underlying motivator that ‘everybody who counts is going to be there’ pushes exhibitors and attendees to show up. With the hope to meet the person or the organization that is going to improve their life or their business. I think of trade shows as business festivals, you know there will be celebrities walking around.
- Serendipity reliance. The trade show model is a straightforward one. Charge exhibitors to expose them to thousands of attendees who, in turn, receive a free or subsidized registration. Expo space is set up, hoping for the two audiences to connect. That usually happens based on serendipity, eye-catching activations, massive booths.
These three elements (and of course, many more) are core drivers that make trade shows successful. While digital technology has tried to mimic some dynamics, the exhibition areas many platforms offered struggled to recreate the environment needed for trade shows to flourish.
Expo areas did a terrific job to support content-driven programs. They provided sponsors with further activation opportunities, engagement and insights. On the other hand, exhibitions, mainly driven by appointments and networking, struggled to create value.
What Happened Next?
As a result of the dissatisfaction many trade show organizers felt, the industry started to fracture.
- On one side, conference organizers, marketers, and agencies were glad to have given continuity to their business and happy to have discovered a new tool to engage their audiences.
- On the other hand, frustrated trade show planners who grew apart from technology, focusing on in-person comeback as the only way to go back to business.
This dichotomy has further intensified in the past year, polarizing opinions. Technology has been perceived as an enemy of in-person business. The cannibalizing force that would kill a once-thriving business.
As usual, the truth lies in the middle. This is an extremely delicate topic that requires an in-depth analysis. People have lost loved ones, businesses, their entire life capsized. The scar is still open and painful.
There is no right or wrong way to approach the issue. The number one rule of the event industry is that every event is different and high-level statements tend to fail.
So why are you writing about it? You may correctly ask. Well, things have changed. To make decisions today, based on what the industry was in Q1 2020 doesn’t make sense.
New opportunities are available that should push trade show organizers to rethink their strategy in 2022 and beyond.
- Technology has changed. My go-to statement, when interviewed on podcasts or writing articles, is that event technology has seen more change in the past 20 months than in the past 20 years. At Hopin, we released 165 new features in 2021 alone. To assume that the toolbox is the same as 2020 is an egregious mistake. Such a rate of change should encourage the trade show industry to constantly re-evaluate the tools available and find breakthrough opportunities to grow their business.
- Technology is non-negotiable for trade shows. Lead retrieval, onsite check-in, access control, mobile apps. These tools are a requirement for trade shows that do not want to disappoint on the experience. Taking any of these technologies away from a trade show floor would project an aging event, alienating attendees. The growing antagonism towards technology is not just wrong, it is dangerous.
- Content is pervasive. A few years ago I wrote a piece on how the exhibition and conference models were merging. I called it a confibition. Probably the better term is convention. That’s the natural evolution of trade shows. Areas where fans could mingle but also a very strong content offering. That content offering is now crucial for trade shows. Again and again, I attend large trade shows where there is not enough space to accommodate knowledge-hungry attendees. Content-driven trade shows will need digital tools more than ever. Whether synchronous or asynchronous hybrid, the amount of people attending trade shows creates an incredible wealth of content that is systematically wasted. Virtual event technology propagates and recycles that content.
- Experience matters. Attending in-person trade shows post-pandemic, I noticed how attendees or buyers cared more about social media activations than booths. Events are becoming stages to create content for our online personas. TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, every opportunity is good for a more interesting social update. Virtual or hybrid event technologies offer incredible opportunities to streamline that content in chats, walls, groups, networking sessions, making the experience valuable for our online selves.
The relationship between trade show organizers and event technology companies is screaming for a reset.
trade shows need to be open towards the use cases of tech in events and re-evaluate the tools available in light of recent changes.
Event tech companies need to keep ideating the best way to serve this incredibly important sector of the industry.
Let’s start fresh!