Trade Shows Need to Evolve | Here Is Why and How to Drive the Change

Future of Work

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I have a love-hate relationship with events. Particularly trade shows.

Too big, too hot, too much travel, too expensive, not enough food, never enough sleep. If I’m there as an exhibitor, my colleagues who were so keen to attend often disappear halfway through the day. If I’m there as a delegate, beyond the main exhibitors the low level of effort that’s gone into making the place look nice never fails to disappoint.

And, most of all, they’re no longer fit for purpose. Because as the world has moved on, trade shows haven’t.

In 1983 The Harvard Business Review asked three captains of industry why they went to trade shows. “Because our competitors are there,” said Kenton E McElhattan of the National Mine Service Company. “It’s mostly about the image.” The unnamed VP of a “$200m industrial company” said “trade shows are a self-perpetuating problem. If I could just throw that money into operating profit each year, I’d be a superstar. But we go, we go.”

Little has changed. The VP’s weary “we go, we go” is as likely to be heard today as it was 37 years ago. Yet these shows continue to be a staple for B2B marketing. In the tech industry, they account for up to 40% of our budgets (and a lot of time). Outside of tech, industries such as manufacturing might spend up to 80% on shows, so they’re significant.

Or they were significant. Having gone without them for months, they’re looking like an expensive, time-consuming habit that we no longer need.

I’m talking about the classic trade show, with its grey carpets and greyer stands, peopled by bored-looking men in equally grey suits. Events will return. The importance of doing business with people is too great for them not to. But we no longer need to spend two days in an overheated exhibition center punctuated by three sleepless nights in a budget hotel to do this.

We have a chance to reshape events in the way we want them. We have the time to think about how to do that because events are not restarting any time soon. Even if people wanted to go, there’s no way employers are going to put their staff at risk by making them attend.

Asking ourselves why we go to trade shows is a good place to start rooting out the good and bad bits. Our jaded execs from 1983 went for all the wrong reasons, but it’s very likely they’re the same reasons many of us still go. Because our competitors do. Because we’ve always gone. Because we can’t afford not to, although it’s impossible to say what we lose if we don’t.

But we also go because of people, and the value they bring. The best shows mix the right audience with inspiration – seeing a really good public speaker give a beautifully scripted keynote is worth the pain. So is the opportunity to meet key prospects and customers. Adding meeting rooms to stands creates an opportunity to carry on talking away from the noise and bustle of the show floor.

Using technology to recreate the best parts of the trade show and lose the frustrating parts is our big opportunity. To go beyond the broadcast keynote. To create a human connection that brings people together, helping us meet people, make new contacts and build a community.

Instead of sweaty days traipsing grey carpets, we could take part in online events more closely tailored to our needs. Replace the one-size-fits-all nature of trade shows with something more precise, maybe akin to online dating, where exhibitors set out their stall and delegates swipe right to find out more. These might be smaller events but they will be more focused and targeted. Adobe Summit went from a huge physical event to a virtual one in 30 days, so we’ve already started.

Look further forward and imagine a virtual show, where you could roam the halls as an avatar. The gaming industry builds interactive worlds of stunning complexity. Could we divert the money and time involved in building a physical show towards creating a virtual one?

Where does this leave live events? Hopefully as entertaining, occasionally thrilling and mostly enjoyable. Every rule has an exception, and there’s one trade show I really love: Vivatech in Paris. It’s an eclectic, brilliant mix of exhibitors, from corporate giants like L’Oreal to ultra-specialist start-ups. Every corner of the hall is designed. No shell scheme, no grey and lots of colour. You never quite know who or what you’re going to encounter, although you can be sure it won’t be a man in a grey suit on a grey stand, fiddling with his phone.