Reimagining Trade Shows: Business is a Year-Round Conversation Punctuated by Events

May 12, 2020

Chris Meyer

Chris Meyer is a marketing and communications consultant and writer with more than 30 years of experience building brands and businesses that make a difference. Most recently, he was head of marketing and communications for Kallman Worldwide, organizer of the U.S. presence at international events including the Paris Air Show, Arab Health and ADIPEC.

Anyone who was invested in the trade show business BC (before COVID-19) is naturally trying to predict the PC marketplace and what safe will look and feel like. From organizers and exhibitors to attendees and the local communities that host them, everyone wants a date on the calendar for when we can walk the aisles again without feeling careless or dangerous.

Since being laid off in mid-March from my job as head of marketing and communications for one of the largest international trade show organizers in the U.S., two things have become clear: 1) that date on the calendar may be a long way off, and 2) we don’t have to wait for that date to continue serving our markets.

This crisis has created an opportunity to expand the event marketing ecosystem by accelerating the convergence of virtual and live experiences. As you navigate this new normal, consider the following three strategies to deliver a more measurable return sooner to stakeholders in any event.

Think Beyond the Floor

Why should the value proposition of trade shows — the cost-effective concentration of targeted news, knowledge and networking opportunities — be limited to a designated physical space in a far-away place one week out of the year? When you strip down the business model to its essential elements, you see there are a lot more ways (and days) to bring together buyers and sellers. Business is a year-round conversation punctuated by events.

The pandemic created a perfect storm to disrupt the worldwide event landscape. Take advantage of this time to reimagine shows as media channels and grow your share of the greater conversation. Anchored by established live events, your brand can harness technology, content, partners and influence to extend and amplify its value online.

If you get it right, the payoff is more customers and a larger total audience of exhibitors and attendees. It’s the same thinking that motivates media companies to acquire shows, but without all those pesky M&A types snooping around.

Up Your Production Game

The challenge is to create a user experience that complements the on-site experience for those who’ve been there before and also attracts wider interest from those who haven’t yet.  

For some, the programming may be as familiar as facilitated roundtables and thought-leadership presentations, bolstered by dynamic directories and interactive marketplaces. For others, it may require more immersive technologies such as VR/AR experiences, games/competitions and entertainment.

For all, original content, creativity and production values will be major factors in success. The Zoom 101 effect is a non-starter, and don’t try to get away with simply replicating or repurposing from old inventory, either.

The opportunity is to create new digital destinations that transform the industry with scalable, sustainable new revenue streams that are measured and monetized by degrees of interaction and transaction. A robust and actively managed digital service operating under the show umbrella will deliver more cumulative value to buyers and sellers over time.

Stand By Your Brand

Some organizers were already building out digital channels before all hell broke loose. Many more have jumped on the bandwagon since. With exponentially more people working remotely and becoming digitally fluent faster, the trend is accelerating.

While the goal is transformation, the process is iterative. There is no silver bullet or on/off switch to flip. It’s a lather-rinse-repeat test of organization and culture, team trust, stakeholder partnerships and customer service. Is your vision clear? Are you smart, skilled, resourceful, connected and committed enough to pursue this with confidence? Most importantly, are you prepared to fail fast and keep pushing forward because you know it’s worth the effort to change the game?

Ultimately, success will be measured in terms of revenue, profit and productivity, but first and foremost, this is a plan to strengthen your event brand now. Leverage hard-earned equity to hold your turf in a down market and set the course for an even greater future for your shows, your customers and the local economies that depend on you for jobs, commerce and civic pride.

However you’re invested in this great business, weigh in as the process plays out around the world. COVID-19 will not kill off face-to-face industry events, but it may someday be remembered as the catalyst for our reimagining of trade show time and space.

Do you agree with these tips for reimagining trade shows? How are you rethinking your own events right now? Share your thoughts in the comments below.


Submitted by Bruce Wiebusch (not verified) on Wed, 05/13/2020 - 16:37

I agree with the idea that trade shows can and should go through a transformation. The magazine publishing industry went through a similar transformation in the late 1990s when websites and digital magazines created competition for print magazines. Instead of publishing once a month, we transformed to publishing 365 days per year. Many magazines went from having 90% of revenue come from print and 10% from digital to now having 90% of revenue from digital and 10% from print. I believe print still has a place in the future, and likewise, trade shows will too. Chris, I am ready to help you figure it out!

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