We’ve just been through two years where trade shows were essentially non-existent. When COVID-19 hit and the lockdowns began, the last place many people wanted to be was among a crowd of people in a big convention hall.
But trade shows have been with us for a long time. The first in North America was likely the Internal Industrial Affairs trade show that was first held in 1889–and the same basic format continues to be used today.
So, the question is, will trade shows make a comeback now that COVID-19 has begun to ebb? I think the answer is that they will come back but not in the way we’re used to.
One of the significant changes COVID-19 caused was a shift from our offices to working from home. The same thing happened with trade shows. After a few months’ hiatus, while we all struggled to understand the impact of the virus, trade shows shifted to virtual experiences. And just like what we saw with the shift in office space, we learned a lot about the pros and cons of the experience.
As trade shows went virtual, one of the biggest lessons was that they became substantially more profitable or less expensive to attend. All the travel, venue, hotel, labor, and food expenses that come with in-person events went away with virtual events. Suddenly, you could “send” more people to virtual events than ever because of the lower costs of going. And while trade shows have always been places to network and learn about new products and services, it’s not like the economy shut down because they were held online.
That’s caused many people to start asking a new question–should trade shows even be held in person at all?
I think it’s fair to say that not everyone has enjoyed the experience of working from home for the past two years. Some people couldn’t wait to get back into the office, and at the same time, others couldn’t wait to get back to attending events like trade shows in person as well. I think trade shows will continue to have an in-person component moving forward. But they’ll also have an online element as well. It will become an actual hybrid experience.
Just like it’s easier to go online and research which new T.V. or car you want to buy, the same is actual for business to business products and services. Spending a few hours in front of your computer researching your market is much more efficient than spending several days wandering around a trade show.
That will change how many people will attend the event and how many people you need to hold it. In the past, it was imperative to have a strong presence at trade shows as suppliers and customers. You needed to staff your booth with enough people to handle all the connections you needed to make, or you needed a big enough team to cover all the potential vendors in the room. Those days are over. In-person events will be much smaller moving forward.
More Efficient and Focused
The value of in-person trade shows will never be what it was. And that’s ok. Like we are seeing companies moving away from renting Class A office space, we’ll see more and more events shifting to a hybrid experience that will allow a more focused experience between buyers and sellers. It will also have a significant impact on the travel and hospitality industry.
I worked with one company that decided last year to bring all their people in for an in-person company conference. They figured it was time for everyone to reconnect. And by all counts, the event was a success. But, they also did some analysis after the fact and realized that pulling off the event cost $2 million. And 80 percent of that cost was airfare, hotels, and meals. In other words, most of that money did not deliver value to the company. I think the same truth applies to trade shows as well. Companies don’t get the same deal they once did by spending all that money to send people to these events in person.
What we’ll see in the future are more focused events that can also have a broad reach for their content and speakers by broadcasting them online. That way, they can host more profitable events, and attendees can get more value by attending virtually or sending smaller teams with more targeted goals to the events in person.
The Trade Show of the Future
COVID-19 has changed a lot about how we work, and it didn’t spare the trade shows which will never look the same again. But let’s embrace the potential that this might be a good thing, not just for the germa-phobes and introverts among us who disliked going to them in the first place. We’ve learned that hybrid events can be cost-effective and efficient ways to connect people and drive results. To say that another way, the trade show is dead; long live the trade show.