Will virtual trade shows replace in-person events?

Discussion
Photo: @RLTheis via Twenty20
Apr 22, 2020
Tom Ryan

Shoptalk last week became the latest conference to roll out virtual events, as numerous in-person gatherings have been canceled or postponed due to directives to avoid unnecessary travel.

Trade shows, fairs and conferences on down to annual meetings and company get-togethers are all quickly being reimagined as digital-only. Even if in-person events are able to return by the fall, it is assumed conferences will be required to implement social distancing practices, such as providing ample space between booths, one-way aisles and limiting the number of attendees.

Educational sessions are expected to translate more easily online than exhibit floor activities. Pre-recorded sessions can be watched at the viewer’s optimal time.

Livestreaming also promises more interactivity for digital audiences versus the occasional texted-quizzes at seminars. America’s fumbling with Zoom sessions, however, points to some challenges. Avi Reichental, founder of XponentialWorks, an advisory firm specializing in artificial intelligence and 3D printing, told Forbes, “Some people are naturally better on video than others and some people might unintentionally ‘showboat’ or talk over others when connected remotely.” 

Shorter sessions are also expected to be necessary for a laptop-bound audience.

Conference producers are attempting to bring expo floors and networking to virtual life, as well. Beyond digital talks in large and intimate settings, Shoptalk is introducing an expanded video conference-enabled version of its Hosted Retailers & Brands Program that promises to bring “thousands of individuals from hundreds of retailers and brands together with thousands of individuals from hundreds of sponsoring companies for upwards of 10,000 onsite, one-to-one meetings each year.”

In launching its series of virtual seven-day market weeks, The Toy Association said, “Just as if walking a show floor, virtual market week attendees will be able to explore a calendar of daily events, browse exhibitors by category, and book appointments for virtual demos and chats.”

Beyond the value of seeing and feeling product at booths, face-to-face meetings have long been seen as critical to building trust.

“Trade shows are very sensory in nature,” Cathy Breden, CEO at Center for Exhibition Industry Research, told Crain’s. “You use all five senses to feel and experience them, whether that’s examining a new product or shaking someone’s hand to build a relationship.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Will virtual conferences be a temporary solution addressing current realities or permanently replace many in-person events? What do you see as the keys to producing successful virtual conferences?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"As more event companies and vendors 'perfect' virtual meetings, in some cases they will replace or augment some in-person events."
"Virtual trade shows, while absolutely necessary this year, will wind up feeling more like Amazon shopping with chatbots than a live event."

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36 Comments on "Will virtual trade shows replace in-person events?"


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Bethany Allee
BrainTrust

The cat is out of the bag, and beancounters now know business can be conducted effectively through virtual means. This means high-dollar programs and face-to-face engagements are likely to be scaled way back. The same goes for high-dollar expense accounts.

The hottest trend in events for the past five to 10 years is experience – and this will be the single most important factor when producing successful virtual conferences. Ensuring the audience feels engaged and enriched by the experience is no longer an enhancing feature. Give them a unique experience on top and you’ve got a recipe for success.

Richard Hernandez
BrainTrust

While I am all for technology and have done virtual conferences, etc. there has to be ground rules on bandwidth and etiquette while having these conferences. I can see this becoming a trainwreck really fast with people talking over each other, forgetting to mute phones, too many people online, etc.

Oliver Guy
BrainTrust

I feel this needs a lot of thought – the repercussions across so many industries are huge. Microsoft and Facebook both said they will not do any physical events until July 2021. At the same time we have seen major exhibitors pull out of the Baselworld Watch show in Switzerland and worries about the future of international motor shows.

I really respect Microsoft and Facebook’s approach because they can invest the time (and money) in making really good virtual events rather than having things cancelled at the last minute. If other companies adopt similar approaches it could be that major shows (like NRF’s Big Show for example) over the next 12+ months may struggle to attract exhibitors. Even 18 months from now it may well be that attitudes of the customers who attended these physical events has changed – meaning that the reason to actually invest in exhibiting is diminished.

David Naumann
BrainTrust
David Naumann
CEO and President, Cogent Creative Consulting
8 months 28 days ago

For the most part, virtual conferences are likely a temporary solution to address our current situation. However, as more event companies and vendors “perfect” virtual meetings, in some cases, they will replace or augment some in-person events.

With travel restrictions, webinars have become one of the most successful marketing tools for companies as we are seeing attendance for these events soar to levels never experienced before COVID-19.

The biggest challenge with virtual events and meetings is the constant occurrence of people talking over each other. Managing microphones of attendees and turning them on and off to let people talk when they “raise their hand” might be a potential solution.

Lee Kent
Guest

Totally agree that virtual events will be a great way to augment some in-person events. Having worked in the event business for several years now, I have seen much tighter reins on the pocketbook. It used to be that you could put on a good show and people would come back. Now days there are so many events vying for the purse strings that companies are having to scale back to only the BEST events. Whatever that is for them.

I believe that it comes down to building loyalty to an event just like you would to a brand and augmenting a single event into multiple virtual events is a good way to start building that loyalty. And that’s my 2 cents.

Art Suriano
Guest
Virtual conferences are being conducted every day, with many more since the pandemic. I see no reason to think that they will not be a temporary solution for trade shows. I also understand that when things return to normal, whatever the new norm will be, we will see more uses for video, whether it be conferences, further instructional opportunities, and more. Many churches are streaming their Sunday masses. With that has begun a big debate on whether or not, once churches are allowed to reopen, they will continue to stream. Many have found they’ve been able to expand their audience because they no longer have geographical boundaries. They find new viewers each week and have been able to reconnect with parishioners how have moved away. So if churches will continue to stream, why wouldn’t we assume there will be new uses for video conferencing in all industries? It comes down to making sure you have something worth watching, the quality is excellent, and those viewing are getting something out of it. I expect this to… Read more »
Ben Ball
BrainTrust

Social media has its limits. I have worked from home for several years now and love it as many do. And remote client service and associate collaboration is definitely doable. But virtual happy hours don’t feel like a party. And virtual trade shows, while absolutely necessary this year, will wind up feeling more like Amazon shopping with chatbots than a live event. This pandemic will certainly push the slope of the remote interaction curve higher, but expect a significant regression to the mean as soon as people can get together in groups again safely.

Bob Amster
BrainTrust

There is very little that can substitute for interpersonal exchanges. They forge and strengthen relationships. Some convention hall conferences may be replaced completely by virtual conferences but many won’t because the reason to go to them, for many attendees, is to see and talk to partners and acquaintances. The talks given at most of these conferences, however, can become a combination of in-person attendance and pay to “attend” a live-streaming event.

Ralph Jacobson
BrainTrust

“Will virtual trade shows replace in-person events?” Yep. They already have. Just like millions of companies are finding out how much remote workers save the businesses money and actually become more productive, virtual events are also far more productive and less costly than face-to-face events. Humans will more likely sign up for a virtual event rather than deal with the travel logistics of being there onsite. I think long-term the convention center business is in jeopardy.

Jeff Sward
BrainTrust

The whole trade show scene will find a new equilibrium with short, medium and long term solutions. With necessity being the mother of invention, the short term will mean a lot more video gathering, however imperfect it may be. And in a post-vaccine world, we can again consider physical gatherings again. In the meantime, my guess is that somebody is frantically at work on 3-D product presentations that will try to make up for some of what we will miss without engaging all five senses.

Jeff Weidauer
BrainTrust

While I don’t think trade shows will be completely replaced by virtual events, many will struggle unless they can demonstrate a compelling reason to attend live. Much like shopping, it’s all about the experience now. On the flipside, I think we will see many more virtual events created with smaller, more targeted audiences now that the barriers to entry are lower.

Bob Phibbs
BrainTrust

The novelty of video conferencing is strong but I predict we are approaching Zoomfatigue. As a motivational speaker, I believe we will return to large gatherings at some point as there is an intangible value to coming together for those chance encounters in the hall or bar where attendees find their tribe, support, and encouragement. Virtual is fine if you’re just presenting product in a pinch but it’s not the same as holding, touching, and being in the moment. I might be off the stage for a while but, from the inquiries I’m getting, not all that long.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

I am already fatigued!

Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

I am sure there will be more virtual conferences than before, once this crisis has abated. But no, I do not believe that virtual conferences will replace real ones entirely. Those who think they will fall into exactly the same trap as those who believe online will replace all physical retail sales: they ignore the fact that we are social creatures.

Very few people want to sit behind a screen all day. We want to go out into the world and experience things tangibly; we want to meet and greet each other in person. That is a natural human instinct and it will not be sated by doing everything virtually.

Suresh Chaganti
BrainTrust
Suresh Chaganti
Co-Founder and Executive Partner, VectorScient
8 months 28 days ago

Obviously there are going be significant headwinds at least for the next 12 months. Even after that I expect significant scrutiny at all levels – sponsors, exhibitors and attendees.

I think the industry has to come up with a better value proposition. Over the past two or three years I have been seeing conferences playing formal matchmaker/doing speed dating to match prospects with vendors. More initiatives in that direction could help.

Cathy Hotka
BrainTrust

I’ve been managing virtual meetings this spring, and structure is very important. The moderator needs to call on participants to speak, and advance planning is a must. Brevity is a plus. Online meetings aren’t organic; they have to be managed, top-down.

Zel Bianco
BrainTrust

When we get back to what may look like normal, there will be a mix of regular trade shows and virtual ones. When we feel more comfortable, most of us will be anxious to get back to some level of social interaction and that includes trade shows and conferences. I agree with some of my fellow BrainTrust commentators that using all your senses cannot be replaced virtually. This is especially true with trade shows like NACS, Expo West, Fancy Food Show and more where buyers want to feel, taste and smell products they may want to buy. This, of course, will present challenges like individually wrapping each product to be tried, etc., but we will find a way.

I also agree that it will be a good excuse for CFOs to say no to trade shows but perhaps organizers need to consider making them regional so that expenses can be controlled.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust
I can see the continuation of virtual conferences or meetings. But a virtual trade show makes no sense to me. Oliver mentioned international auto shows. Can you imagine getting the same bang from introducing a car online as letting people actually see it? I have been on both sides of trade shows. As an exhibitor, I always had to take deep breaths because of how much they cost. But I could never see an alternative. The personal interaction it creates with the product and the people is priceless. Given a choice to spend less or more, I always chose more. And the same goes for the other side. You spend days walking aisles to find the one thing that fits your needs. As awful as those days were, I can’t even imagine how awful being online for days doing the same thing would be. And no, I don’t want some software to cull the exhibitors that I would see. That is like a streaming service suggesting the movies I would like based on what I… Read more »
Oliver Guy
BrainTrust

I do agree with you regarding difficult getting a “bang” from an online event, however, there are alternatives to reveals at auto shows.

I actually believe Jaguar Land Rover have pioneered some interesting ideas in this area — the current Discovery was launched by driving it across a Lego model of Tower Bridge and while there was an audience in attendance it was streamed live on the internet. Equally the launch of the Range Rover was focused around a video of the car driving up a 999 step elevation. With the right planning and imagination, I feel any type of business can make a decent attempt at launching via a different format — and I feel we are likely to see some massive innovation in this area coming from Microsoft and Facebook in the next 15 months.

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

My partner Rich and I make our living speaking at trade shows and corporate meetings. Currently we are doing a lot of virtual work, and while it’s good, it’s just not the same. People need face-to-face interaction.

I definitely think the virtual world will be with us for a while, and in a different capacity when the COVID-19 pandemic is over. But just as consumers will still crave the brick-and-mortar experience, we will return to physical trade shows. Can you imagine NRF’s Big Show on a computer screen? I, for one, cannot.

Tony Orlando
Guest

The larger conventions like NGA will continue, and smaller venues will shrink over time. I am working on a virtual food show with Lipari as we speak and it is somewhat intimidating to work through the process, but we shall see how this goes. No Show Food Shows have been around forever and, if you participate, than you get some great deals without leaving your store. If you can build trust with the sales reps, then working virtually through the deals is a piece of cake. The face-to-face convention style shows are still popular, and hopefully they will continue. The one suggestion I have made in the past to the NGA staff is the follow-up on the vendor’s part to make sure the potential customers get all of their questions asked afterwards. If that gets better, all of us benefit from the show — either virtual or face-to-face.

Steve Montgomery
BrainTrust

There are many reasons to attend a trade show. One of those that cannot be replaced by a virtual show is networking between attendees and exhibitors, and between attendees and other attendees. Zoom meeting may have advantages over phone calls but pale in comparison to face-to-face discussions. I can see virtual meetings as a temporary solution but not as a permanent solution.