29 Jun 2021



June 29, 2021

Matt Swenson

The Future of Trade Shows, Part I

David Stevens, director of global events and field marketing at Alation, knows a thing or two about planning events. So when Alation was recently evaluating purchasing a booth at a trade show this November in California, his Spidey-sense went off. There were no backup plans should COVID-19 have an unexpected surge or another circumstance forced a cancellation. A digital component was not mentioned because there isn’t one. When he pressed about contingencies, Stevens was told the group would figure it out if they had to.

“There’s this arrogance that events are back,” Stevens said. “They are being quite flippant about it. It’s like trade show organizers have not learned a damned thing.”

Optimism should not replace precaution, said Stevens. Things can, and often do, go askew when planning trade shows and conferences. COVID isn’t the first, nor is it the last, disruptor. But the pandemic-induced blackout on events offered a chance to reset and evaluate new efficiencies and experiences, speeding up the process of potentially adapting to the future complete with technological advancements.

As shows like World of Concrete return, we are witnessing the first piece of a long endgame. Are attendees going to return to a brave new world? Have organizers discovered new avenues of engagement? Has the industry as a whole, as Stevens asked, learned anything?

We polled about a dozen event professionals who can’t see the future, but can make educated guesses about where trade shows are headed. One thing is certain: “The next three months to 18 months are going to be a very fascinating time,” said Sam Lippman, president and founder of Lippman Connects, who hosted an education session on this very topic during the Event Leadership Institute’s inaugural Business, Design & Strategy Summit in June.

Here’s some of what we found.

Some Events Won’t Change Much.

Fashion, jewelry and other industries that rely on tactile experiences and are designed to produce bulk orders will resemble their 2019 counterparts, Lippman predicted. JCK, for instance, is making only modest changes to its showfloor and flow for its August event in Las Vegas. 

“If you're doing marketplaces, and you have a loyal cadre of buyers and sellers, coming back to the physical manifestation without too many changes is probably a good thing,” Lippman said.

Some Shows Will Be Outside the Box.

Carl Anthony, managing editor of Automoblog and AutoVision News, already sees auto shows expanding their horizons, both literally and figuratively. Not all attendees will have the same comfort levels with large crowds, which Anthony said is leading major shows in Chicago and Detroit to shift gears. 

“One idea is to move a portion of the auto show outdoors, where attendees can view displays, take rides in new cars and even enjoy music and food,” Anthony suggested. Smaller, traditional shows may follow the status quo to maintain momentum to return to business as usual.

Experience Will and Should Be a Factor.

“Intentionality” is how global events producer Melissa Park summed up what needs to be added to shows going forward. “Cookie cutter shows of the past are not going to cut it,” she said. She said themed days would allow exhibitors to hone in on target audiences and for event organizers to demonstrate their show is not a one-size-fits all. 

“This ‘quality over quantity’ focused approach to trade show marketing will demonstrate how the brand is putting the attendee (not themselves) first and lead to a better emotional connection between the customer and brand,” Park explained.

Stevens agrees that now is the time to try new things, in part because attendees will be so excited just to be at a live event again. “Roll the dice,” he encouraged. “Let's experiment and see what happens. We are going into an era of opportunity and forgiveness.”

Crowds Will Be Smaller, But Maybe Better.

We know business travel is lagging behind and may not reach pre-pandemic levels until 2024. That might not be the worst thing in the world for trade show organizers, who some argue should be reconsidering their reporting for a number of reasons. 

“Reduced attendee numbers doesn't necessarily mean a weaker event for the stakeholders — and instead it could well prove to actually be a benefit,” said Matthew Funge, managing director and founder of Your Stand Builder, a London-based tech company connecting virtual and physical trade shows. The theory is that those who do make the trip to a show will be more likely to sign deals than an attendee who is on the fence.

Added Lipman, “Organizers are going to have to stop saying that my show is 10% bigger — that’s a no-win arms race.”

Shows Will Regionalize.

US Bank Event Marketing Strategist Jodi Reichstadt is not convinced — to put it mildly — that show organizers have truly adjusted their mindset. But there’s not much getting around the changing travel habits mentioned above. If attendees won’t come to shows, she said many companies will bring the show to them. 

“I predict smaller regional conferences for at least a couple of years because it will ‘feel safer’ for attendees and networking will become even more of a draw,” said the St. Paul, Minn.-based Reichstadt. 

Run Show USA, for instance, is making its foray next year with shows in Boston and Chicago, fully expecting to draw from the surrounding geographic regions. 

The Workforce Will Change.

Just as attendees will be driving in from shorter distances, event companies (many of whom downsized dramatically during the pandemic) are going to look to hire local contractors, predicted Funge. GESSoundings and Informa are among the companies  most visibly preparing for a new way of staffing events. Funge is quick to note that going local allows organizers to reduce travel and health risks, and is certainly cheaper than flying out a fleet of workers. 

“Asking an exhibit builder to manufacture in their workshop and then transport the materials across the country is simply not going to be as efficient and possible as it was previously,” Funge said. “A noticeable shift towards working with suppliers ‘on location’ is sure to become apparent as physical business events gradually return.”

Some Events Will Be Far Out.

Ben Chodor, president of Intrado Digital Media, is excited to see more event companies experimenting like Salesforce is doing with Dreamforce. Typically a mammoth show drawing more than 100,000 to San Francisco, the show will follow a hub-and-spoke model this September. While California will be a base for many attendees, there will also be physical locations in New York, London and Paris. All sites will be connected virtually, and there will be online-only content as well. 

“How do we combine multiple locations at a time?” asked Chodor. “No one really knows what the future is. All we know is there are these two audiences and sometimes they are going to be blended. But at the end of the day, content is going to be king.”