The Future for Trade Shows in 2018

December 22, 2017 Susan Serena

Would you agree that trade shows need change if they want to stay relevant? Many attendees complain about their traditional resistance to change.

There is a better way to plan trade shows that deliver a unique event experience to increasingly demanding attendees. There’s an easier way that doesn’t have to disrupt your logistics, yet moves focus to what really matters to the modern attendee.

Read on to find out what modern trade shows are doing to stay relevant and what our research says attendees want. Make your trade show future-proof.

I’ve been thinking a lot about trade shows lately. There are numerous signs in the market that a shift is happening. As always, change is not always an easy pill to swallow. It comes with disruption, pain, loss. And that is what we are noticing. Many trade shows are shutting down. Some others are reinventing themselves with a stronger proposition. A human-centric approach to making business – oh dear – do we need that!

What We Never Liked About Trade Shows

I think I have a list I made in 2007 of the things I didn’t like about trade shows and that I wanted to change by starting a blog (a bit paranoid, but hey!). That list is still relevant today for many trade shows. Increasingly less, I like to say, but still quite a lot. Let’s have a look:

  • Impossibility to sit
  • Massive lines to get in
  • Massive lines at women’s toilets
  • No power outlets
  • Depressing content
  • Promotional content
  • Content slots offered to sponsors, with no editorial guidelines
  • Incredible carbon footprint and waste impact
  • Exhibitors shouting to get you in their booth
  • Booth babes
  • Uncontrolled amounts of alcohol flowing in side events, before/during/after parties
  • Lack of transparency with hosted buyer’s programs
  • Hosted buyers that don’t care about meetings and are just in it for the freebies
  • Irrelevance, noise, lack of context
  • Attendee fatigue: too much to see, do and walking.
  • LACK OF WIFI (sorry for the caps, I am upset)
  • Lack of community engagement on social media
  • Worthless giveaways that end up in the trash
  • Lack of content by exhibitors
  • Presence only of salespeople
  • General lack of purpose – what is the trade show trying to achieve?

I could go on and on and so could you. There is definitely more and we all recognize these issues. They have been there forever. As event professionals, we may be more sensible than some. We may articulate with precision, while attendees just don’t bother showing up for the next one.

Let’s talk about attendees though, because in the ‘70s these problems (other than the tech-related ones) were already there. Nobody complained, we kept going to trade shows. Well, a few things have changed in the past 10 years and attendees are acting accordingly.

Some of The Changes Affecting Trade Shows

I am not sure if you’ve noticed but our lives have changed a little over the past 10 years. While half of the industry is busy blaming it on Millennials, I am sure you belong to the savvy half understanding this is a much bigger phenomenon that affects ALL of us, not Cosmo-friendly nomenclatures of demographics.

Let me list again some of the changes, you told me are happening when I met you at one of the events I was involved in, over the last few years.

I’ll play a bit of the devil’s advocate here, don’t get upset and jump to the comments before reading the whole post though. Deal?

  • We buy online. The ability to research and add context to a potential meeting makes buying online as effective as buying in person. Why should I trust a salesperson from a company on a trade show floor when I can read opinions, reviews, watch videos and gather tons of other relevant intelligence online? This is especially true in B2B. The meeting in person or tele/video conference will be more of a confirmation meeting.
  • We sell online. The role of trade shows in letting people know about a (new) product is irrelevant. There are much better ways to inform our customers of our products. Companies are spending gazillions in creating videos, blog posts or engaging in social media. Companies are more invested in running their own events, embracing user events or experiential marketing to launch new products. If we consider the lead generation cost, we know as EventMB how some long-term clients have pulled out of exhibitions and trade shows (at least the bad ones) because they get 25 times their investment in working with us.
  • We network online. Yeah, face to face is important, never be replaced and all but WE NETWORK ONLINE, deal with it. I can find relevant people to meet by joining a group on LinkedIn or Facebook. I can search Twitter profiles for relevant contacts. I can have the illusion I am networking with someone popular by engaging with their Instagram pictures. Truth is, I don’t need to attend events in general. If I am really motivated, all I need is to get online
  • We consume content online. Are you telling me I should attend a trade show to get good content? Ahahhahahah. Funny. C’mon let’s be serious. We all know that content at trade shows is unacceptably average, promotional and with sponsors, rather than attendees, in mind. Most trade shows have no budget for speakers and that reflects in clever titles on the programme that deliver an enormous amount of c*&p when you actually sit down and listen to what it is being said. I can easily avoid the pain of leaving my job, my enormous to-do list, my family, my crying daughter that doesn’t want me gone for 4 days, the dog I love, my needy boss who will be upset that nothing got done while I was away and much more by just watching a Youtube video, reading a white paper or a proper blog post.

Is it all done then for trade shows? Are they part of history? We could apply the same logic to business events in general, where there is no emotional reason to attend, as there is with weddings or parties.

The Need to Meet

While I was hypnotizing you with my reasons why we should not attend trade shows, you probably didn’t notice the emergence of the most popular reasons why we do attend events today. Back in 2009 (I know, I am getting old), I was in a fierce battle against those saying that social media would have cannibalized attendance at events. Yet, the result has been quite the opposite. To the level we know, events actually have a purpose for social media use (back then it was mostly fluff), creating FOMO or Fear Of Missing Out. We see so many of our friends at an event that we feel frustrated we are not there. So frustrated that we make a serious commitment to attend the next year.

All this digital interaction, networking, picture liking, video watching, increases exponentially the need to meet in person. It’s almost like online dating, getting to know your prospective partner online creates a sense of urgency to then meet offline. Of course, online helps to skim the worst candidates (a luxury you can’t afford offline) but then, once you find the perfect match, you want to meet desperately.

Social media has been the most positive thing to happen to the event industry in here. Those events who harness the power of online communities can count on attendance at all costs. The community will have so many relationships going on that it is inevitable that members will use the trade show to meet. The trade show of the future knows how to cleverly use online content and tools to connect members and create that urgency to meet. The trade show of the future uses content at the event cleverly to increase FOMO in those attending online. Amplifying content in the right way, showcasing connections, broadcasting surprising moments are all tactics that will secure attendance for the foreseeable future.

A Lot of People Coming Together

The bottom line is that while we may agree that the old reasons why we attend are slowly fading down, there is still a large majority of attendees that show up, even if they don’t like it. They kind of need to be there, because their boss told them so, because they want to get away from their spouse (hey, let’s be honest), because it’s the event of the year after all, because they need to meet that person that only goes to that show. The reasons are multiple, and they can be right or wrong, yet trade shows still manage to attract large crowds that would hardly get together otherwise. Especially when it comes to press, decision makers and VIPs, trade shows still have that special event feeling.

The fact we need to be there, is an asset for the trade show of the future. Many, many times trade show organizers sat comfortably on their brand, with the only mission to sell space. What about attendees? How can you leverage this melting pot of souls and make it really special?

Trade shows need to maintain their status of unique opportunities to get together as a large group. This messaging is vital for the survival of this format. All the decisions have to be made on a strategic level to reinforce the fact your trade show is one of the few, if not the only moment to meet so many people you can’t meet anywhere else. You need to actively create areas and activities for large groups to meet or mix and mingle attendees of all kinds.

Consider though, maybe we are actually too hung up on quantity over quality? Is it the vast visitor numbers or having the right people there that makes the difference? With the hosted buyer model, for instance, this vets the buyers to ensure they are of the right caliber and gives exhibitors and attendees the opportunity to do business at the show. Maybe reducing the footprint of the trade shows we run could actually give a better opportunity to our exhibitors, sponsors, partners and attendees, in a variety of ways? This survey from May 2017, highlights why marketers value smaller trade shows more than larger trade shows worldwide. In general, 92 percent of respondents saw small trade show as better investment.

I wish I could give you more tactics, but this is a strategic, brand driven decision that cannot be translated in ‘do this/do that’ tips. Ask yourself, are you making decisions that help attendees to fully understand the power or scale of your event and the fact it really is a unique opportunity to meet everyone they need to in one or two days? This is the strongest business networking proposition you can make.

Stepping Up Content

Attendees are speaking loud and clearly. Knowledge areas are swarmed by hordes of attendees looking for a pill of insight. Constantly, they are deluded with results. Trade shows are trade shows though, they are not conferences. They need to stay true to their mission of creating business opportunities for attendees and exhibitors. How do you satisfy this incredible need for content?

Let’s take a step back though. Isn’t it weird? How can attendees be thirsty for content in an era where content is so accessible? Attendees are thirsty for content that serves three purposes:

  • It filters noise with authority
  • It ignites change
  • It gives technical education

You can let the garbage have the rest of your useless three pages of program, as it just upsets participants.

Access to lots of content online means confusion. It also means decontextualization and, therefore, it translates to lack of action. Online content is often catchy and concise, you cannot learn from brevity and catchiness.

So trade show planners should focus on content that delivers on filtering out the noise. Giving a clear direction to the confused online spectator. The trade show of the future supports content that ignites change by selecting speakers, formats and room layouts that support active participation. Finally, the trade show of the future offers certification and education programs that treat the subject with authority and verticality. They offer a true education opportunity that goes over one or two days and is immersive. The latter can become the strongest money maker for trade shows in the future.

Attention to The Human

No more. No more hurting feet, no more fatigue, no more shouting, no more having a poor sandwich while you are standing in a corridor or sitting on a sidewalk. The trade show of the future recognizes that events are about humans and being kind to humans. Forward-thinking trade show planners have started to ask themselves why they do certain things. They started to challenge the status quo and it pays off.

While attending our industry’s most popular trade show, IMEX, I posted this picture on social. I was surprised by how many people I met saw it. They were all impressed by the effort the trade show made to offer a place to sit down, have some nice food and listen to music. Paid food, of course, but hey! Incredible effort to be human-friendly and cater to large crowds with a sensible approach.

Did they revolutionize the model? Not really. Yet, I will remember their attention to my wellbeing forever. They didn’t trick me into doing business or stopping by booths. They allowed me to recharge so I could meet more people and do more business.

The shift doesn’t have to be disruptive or dramatic. It has to serve your attendees that are humans being like we are. It has to have a purpose. Speaking of which….

The Role of Purpose

What is the purpose of your trade show? You may come up with a list of a hundred items or you could echo some of the reasons above. The truth is that few trade shows have a clear purpose in mind. A purpose or an objective that really connects all individuals. A purpose that makes all the elements of this very intricate puzzle fall into place. Trade shows have the unprecedented opportunity every year to bring a massive amount of change thanks to their size. As we all agree that events need to change behavior, how is your trade show changing your industry?

To create business opportunities, or to network, are effects; they are not causes. They cannot be the objectives of your trade show. When they are it is very easy to fall back in the usual demoralizing tactics. Can you make a profit while creating change? Of course you can. Value is your friend. How are you creating value in equal measure for your attendees, exhibitors, performers, local community? Are there unconventional ways to give a new purpose to your show?

I don’t have an answer for you. It’s about you. It’s about your event. Too many times event planners have been described as executional, I believe we are among the finest strategists on the planet. That is why I am leaving this open for you to figure it out with your team. Send me your answer in the comments.

In Conclusion

Are trade shows over? Far from it. They are changing though, driven by the incredible change in our society, economy and technological environment. Attendees have new reasons why they attend trade shows. We need to capitalize on this massive opportunity to be a better, stronger and more purposeful meeting.

Previous Article
Binge Attending Events in 2018
Binge Attending Events in 2018

The latest way to take in content is to binge. A very familiar concept when it comes to TV shows and movies...

Next Article
5 Traits of Innovative Sponsorship Programs
5 Traits of Innovative Sponsorship Programs

2017 is an interesting year so far. The level of change we are experiencing on a political level is intense...