Reimagining Trade Shows in the Age of Isolation
With large in-person gatherings off the table for now, how can brands recreate the magic of a big industry event?
Before the world came to a screeching halt, the trade show was a vital pipeline of revenue and relevance for every industry. Congregating with thousands of strangers in a convention center has never been anyone’s ideal vacation, but a real business need still persists. To fill it, companies of all kinds must rethink what it means to deliver a best-in-class trade show experience — and to do it safely and effectively.
A trade show is more than gladhanding and floor pitches. It’s a chance, maybe the chance, to launch a brand, unveil a product, and expand a professional network. In this potent cocktail of connecting people with new ideas and opportunities, millions can be made in a moment. And from a cost-per-lead perspective, trade shows are among the most affordable ways to build opportunities. There’s a reason these events comprised a $15.7 billion industry unto themselves.
With the stakes so high, expos and event holders are working hard to keep their event dates set in stone, regardless of travel limitations. Companies are scrambling to create virtual experiences that might replace what the physical model delivered so well. Many still cling to the hope that a single online event can live up to the in-person occasion that their customers know and love.
But directly replacing one thing with another is aiming to miss the mark. Instead, organizations should look beyond a grandiose event and create new ways to impress. They must recognize that the pandemic is creating opportunity and innovation borne from the adaptations that crisis has created.
So how can a revamped experience reimagine what the events of yesteryear delivered? It’s a tough ask. But let’s look at all the aspects of a trade show and consider how businesses might adapt in the age of COVID.
Redefine “together” and broaden the audience
Yesterday’s trade shows involved thousands of organizations coming together during a specified set of dates — and there’s no reason why that should change. Firm calendar dates act as targets for delivery and should remain so. These deadlines force the marketing arms of every industry to coordinate and focus on a single goal. It’s the notion of “togetherness” that needs to change.
We’ve already seen some trade shows shift to an online event by giving each sponsor a dedicated space to share their offerings within a single digital experience, hosting their videos, case studies, and updated marketing messages. This shift has the benefit of addressing a previously unseen audience: interested parties without the means or time to attend an event in person. It’s a more inclusive approach that helps companies reach a broader audience — and it fosters healthy competition among them to deliver a high-quality experience.
Get the word out in new ways, on your own terms
In their pre-pandemic prime, trade shows were the ultimate platform for a big reveal, be it a new campaign, a product launch, or a sneak peek at innovations to come. While these events offered promising opportunities for businesses to stand out from the crowd, many messages could get lost in the cacophony of buzz around one or two must-see booths. But the events themselves aren’t vital to these unveilings—they’re merely a convenient platform for launch.
Brands have long introduced new things outside of a trade show experience, and they will continue to do so. While the shift to virtual events helps bring these messages together, this approach is likely to shift. Rather than using an event to unveil what’s new, trade shows will become more of an opportunity to reinforce a new offering that has already launched outside of the trade show calendar. By relying less on one big moment, brands can design experiences that are independent of a booth’s limitations.
This is an opportunity for companies to hold product launches on their own terms, creating more innovative experiences to make a splash in homes and offices worldwide. When conducted apart from a trade show floor, these launch experiences can be more intimate and moving, provoking responses that a crowded physical booth cannot. By tapping into new modes like AR, VR, and advanced personalization, brands can transcend the old format and deliver something more compelling.
Such approaches might feel temporary, but innovating now can have lasting power tomorrow. If and when the industry returns to “normal,” these immersive experiences can remain part of a company’s marketing arsenal, complementing their physical presence in trade shows to come.
Recreate the in-person experience in “pod” form
The ability to network on a massive scale remains unmatched outside of a physical trade show. For all its charms, Zoom will never be the best way to make a first impression, let alone build a lasting relationship. But networking remains a vital way to create opportunity on both sides of the booth.
As the ability to gather en masse remains paused, organizers might take a lesson from education and consider a “pod” experience. Smaller meet-and-greet events can be held around common business locations, removing the trade show from a single facility. By opening up an event to a broader audience through satellite locations across the country, sponsors and attendees can still meet their networking needs — but on a localized scale.
These mini-trade shows can bear some hallmarks of conventional trade shows, such as live presentations, demos, and press events. But they’ll allow professionals to adhere to new norms of social interaction — and save the Zoom calls for follow-ups.
Support the trickle-down effect by boosting local business
Trade show organizers and exhibitors aren’t the only ones with a financial stake in big in-person events. Conventions also bring needed business to the hotel, restaurant, transportation and entertainment industries — all of which have taken a significant economic hit this year. While their services don’t always seem vital to hosting a trade show, they are often essential elements that turn a business trip into a memorable experience.
Virtual events should consider rewarding participants with sponsored virtual Happy Hour cocktail kits, meal packages, or any gift that can help support local businesses during these trying times. Gift cards and kits can’t fully replace the lost revenue or support the thousands of jobs at stake. But they can bring help to the business owners and workers who need it.
Plan ahead with cautious optimism
As of this writing, it’s still unclear when a sense of normalcy will return for trade shows. Some events have optimistically rescheduled for the final quarter of 2020, while most have their sights set on 2021. In the meantime, virtual occasions continue to make their best attempts at filling the vacuum. With the pipeline of new offerings and campaigns still in motion, the show — in some form — must go on.
In the meantime, with some creative thinking and a bit of risk-taking, here’s hoping that industries and their customers can power through this period of uncertainty. Because at the moment, the prospect of returning to a giant convention hall filled with a few thousand strangers doesn’t sound so bad.