Exciting News for Big Trade Shows: They Will Never Be the Same Again

July 14, 2020

Bob Priest-Heck

Bob Priest-Heck is CEO of Freeman, which he joined in 2011 with the acquisition of Wheelhouse Solutions. He has spent the past 25 years leading global technology brands and experiential marketing agencies, and was instrumental in the development and launch of Freeman’s creative and strategic agency services, as well as in creating Freeman Digital Ventures.

The following blog is a response to a recent article that ran on Barron's.

In case you were worried, trade shows are not going away, but they will forever change. And that’s an exciting thing.

We at Freeman extend our congratulations to Apple and its marketing teams. Apple's Virtual Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) was impressive – excellent, even. After all, it was organized by a company with incredible technology and message discipline wrapped in one of the most potent brand narratives, all built around user-centered design.

For WWDC, Apple leveraged all the advantages of a virtual production, ticking every box on the proverbial virtual event best practices list, from drum-tight messaging and exclusive content to high production value and access to informative and relevant experts.

We know first-hand how difficult it is to do this right. You name it, Apple nailed it.

The power of face-to-face

There is something unique and inimitable about actually being there. It’s why our friends in tech continue to rave about the WWDC event’s virtual elements, while also speaking wistfully of missing the live, in-person event experience.

And rightly so.

The energy exchange created through human connection has the power to deepen the moment, inspire change and build enough trust to move mountains.

Even after creating the iPhone, Steve Jobs knew the connections, conversations, unexpected discoveries, and the irreplaceable sense of being there – the serendipity of the live event – would not be replaced by the digital experience.

This is where the business of “live” comes into play: face-to-face marketing, eyeball-to-eyeball, live interactions that differentiate and enhance the entire experience. We’ve evangelized and advocated for the attendee experience, strategic design and alignment. We've gathered leaders from non-traditional disciplines — storytellers and filmmakers, strategists and creatives, technologists and scientists, and more smart, innovative thinkers focused on a core belief that a great attendee experience makes a live event irreplaceable.   

Freeman’s COVID-19 Attendee Pulse Research validates that point, with almost two-thirds (62 percent) saying they expect events to return as strong as they ever were before COVID-19.

Economic incubators for growth

For the millions of businesses that are the true life-blood of the economy, more than 80 percent of them small with many being women and minority-owned, it's essential to recognize the critical role events play as a massive incubator for innovation and economic growth.

Without trade shows and the uncountable and unexpected connections and opportunities they create and nurture, hundreds of thousands of businesses risk losing a critical and accelerated path to success and scale. 

It's worth noting, for example, that in 1977, a little 10-employee company introduced their Apple II at the West Coast Computer Faire in San Francisco and started a journey that would lead to them virtually hosting WWDC.

Without face-to-face marketing, the trust and access it brings, and the commerce it drives, are we condemning an Apple of the future to a much steeper, more protracted, more expensive and far riskier path to success? 

Focusing on the right attendee

Historically, the live events industry has focused on size and scale versus quality of attendee. Through benchmark work at Freeman, we know that not all attendees are created equal. In a post-pandemic world, companies can focus on getting the right people to the event – the key decisions makers, influencers, and brand loyalists that drive revenue pipelines for businesses. 

An integrated approach is necessary. In a post-COVID world, it’s easy to think we must shift away from in-person meetings and events. However, that’s not what anyone wants. We have asked exhibitors, attendees and brand marketers. They want to have face-to-face events. The bar will be higher.

Those of us in the live events space have a clear-eyed perspective on the industry’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and liabilities. We have known change was necessary. We have invested in virtual platforms, understanding their value and long-assuming that hybrid events would become a critical part of enhancing any size event portfolio.

Our industry is poised to move to a new, more relevant and valuable reality. Moving forward, trade shows will thrive by focusing on the live experience, making it easier for the right people to connect in person, while expanding to virtual audiences. 

We know we’re all going down a track at high speed as we approach a very tight and slippery turn. It will take skill, discipline, planning, and nerve to make the turn. We're ready for it. Are you?

Add new comment

Partner Voices
Overview: The award-winning Orange County Convention Center (OCCC) goes the extra mile to make every day extraordinary by offering customer service excellence and industry-leading partnerships. From their dedicated in-house Rigging team to their robust Exhibitor Services, The Center of Hospitality brings your imagination to life by helping you host unforgettable meetings and events. With more than 2 million square feet of exhibit space, world-class services and a dream destination, we are committed to making even the most ambitious conventions a reality. In October 2023, the Orange County Board of County Commissioners voted to approve allocating Tourist Development Tax funding for the $560 million Phase 5A completion of the OCCC. The Convention Way Grand Concourse project will include enhancements to the North-South Building, featuring an additional 60,000 square feet of meeting space, an 80,000- square-foot ballroom and new entry to the North-South Building along Convention Way. “We are thrilled to begin work on completing our North-South Building which will allow us to meet the growing needs of our clients,” said OCCC Executive Director Mark Tester. “As an economic driver for the community, this project will provide the Center with connectivity and meeting space to host more events and continue to infuse the local economy with new money and expanding business opportunities.” Amenities: The Center of Hospitality goes above and beyond by offering world-class customer service and industry-leading partnerships. From the largest convention center Wi-Fi network to custom LAN/WAN design, the Center takes pride in enhancing exhibitor and customer experience.  The OCCC is the exclusive provider of electricity (24-hour power at no additional cost), aerial rigging and lighting, water, natural gas and propane, compressed air, and cable TV services. Convenience The Center is at the epicenter of the destination, with an abundance of hotels, restaurants, and attractions within walking distance. Pedestrian bridges connect both buildings to more than 5,200 rooms and is within a 15-minute drive from the Orlando International Airport. The convenience of the location goes hand-in-hand with top notch service to help meet an event’s every need. Gold Key Members The OCCC’s Gold Key Members represent the best of the best when it comes to exceptional service and exclusive benefits for clients, exhibitors and guests. The Center’s Gold Key memberships with Universal Orlando Resort, SeaWorld Orlando and Walt Disney World greatly enhance meeting planner and attendee experiences offering world-renowned venues, immersive experiences and creative resources for their events. OCCC Events: This fiscal year, the OCCC is projected to host 168 events, 1.7 million attendees, and $2.9 billion in economic impact.  The Center’s top five events during their 2022-2023 fiscal year included:  AAU Jr. National Volleyball Championships 2023 200,000 Attendees $257 Million in Economic Impact MEGACON 2023 160,000 Attendees $205 Million in Economic Impact Open Championship Series 2023 69,500 Attendees $89 Million in Economic Impact Sunshine Classic 2023 42,000 Attendees $54 Million in Economic Impact Premiere Orlando 2023 42,000 Attendees $108 Million in Economic Impact