Can organisers stay relevant in the age of disruption?

If you asked most exhibition organisers what defines a successful show, the reply would be: floor space, a sea of trade visitors and booths as far as the eye can see. The industry has long relied on these metrics to assess the growth and profitability of their events. Even at the global level, UFI’s annual reports will gauge the health of the exhibition industry using these measures.

So imagine my surprise when the regional head of an international exhibition organiser cautioned that the singled-minded pursuit to increase exhibitor and visitorship year-on-year will hurt a show.

Why? When shows increase in size and organisers do nothing to foster a better environment for business opportunities, the experience for both visitor and exhibitor invariably suffers.

The opportunities created at a trade show doesn’t stem from countless warm bodies strolling past never-ending booths. Exhibitors want to engage trade visitors with serious business intentions, and the latter isn’t keen to wander countless halls and aisles searching for suppliers when tech advancements have it much easier for buyers and investors to do pre-event research.

Why do matchmaking / business matching?

The preference for face-to-face meetings has long shielded the industry from disruption; before the rise of B2B market places, digital networking platforms and internet B2B research, there was little cause for concern. When quizzed about the competition, most organisers mention rival exhibitions, either within the same country or region. The largest trade shows might even have rivals placed in other continents, but few organisers see digital alternatives as a direct threat. At the most, perhaps a distant existential one, waaaaaay into the future.

But this is the age when all roads lead to tech disruption and you can find plenty of roadkill on the asphalt: retail music, personal transport, hospitality, the list is long. Even the tech sector isn’t exempt — just look at how Google has replaced Yahoo.

The organisations that survive and thrive do so through embracing innovation and change. The partnership of UBM and Alibaba is a clear example that organisers can and will embrace innovation and evolve their business models. No doubt more than a few heads — certainly ours — were turned when the UBM-Alibaba announcement was made. Still, there’s no need to rush into partnering the next B2B marketplace. There are other ways in which organisers can innovate and adapt.

One such method is by incorporating matchmaking and business matching into your events.

What is matchmaking / business matching?

It’s a service provided by event organisers to facilitate relevant business connections between event participants to explore business opportunities, be it procurement, investment, collaborations, partnerships or peer-to-peer meetings. Matchmaking / business matching is by no means new to the industry, and its use in exhibitions has only grown.

Matchmaking / business matching can be done a few ways:

  • Digital (event apps, browser-based platform, etc.)
  • Analog (phone calls, in-person, etc.)
  • Pre-event or onsite
  • Internally or through external parties

Organisers can and should combine a variety of methods for a satisfying participant experience. An example of a comprehensive matchmaking / business matching service might be one where participants are engaged pre-event through both digital and analog means, with VIPs and sponsors getting additional support from the organiser onsite during event days.

In a UFI Survey on Matchmaking, over 70% of respondents indicated they had organised matchmaking session at their exhibits in the past 3 years; 90% indicated they would offer matchmaking in the future. It’s important to note the survey was taken five years ago. One can be certain that matchmaking will eventually be the norm at trade shows if it isn’t already.

Exhibition organisers who dismiss the threat of tech disruption risk more than just their profit margins or losing market share to rivals — they might well become the next tech disruption roadkill.

Conundrum of exhibitions. Changing nature of attendees. Quality vs quantity. Need for quality meetings.

Written by Alex Ng, BD Lead

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