After a year of non-stop virtual events, many of us are missing the hustle and bustle of in-person trade shows—not to mention the personal, face-to-face networking opportunities they bring. While the future of trade shows and corporate events still largely remains to be seen, the past year has given us some insight as to best practices to keep exhibitors and guests engaged no matter the venue.

For decades, in-person trade shows and events have been a cornerstone of corporate marketing, networking and sales. However, 2020 broke the mold in terms of corporate events, forcing organizers to host their event virtually or not at all. But trade shows, by their sensory and personal nature, do not translate perfectly to a virtual platform.

In this blog, we’ll break down the inherent challenges that come with hosting a digital trade show, offer trade show success tips and answer frequently asked questions about what the future may hold for these critical corporate events.

The History and Future of Trade Shows

Trade shows and other in-person corporate events have been crucial sales and marketing tools for organizations and businesses for centuries. Beginning with the “trade fairs” of medieval Europe, to the World Fairs of the Industrial Revolutions, to the modern-day expo, trade shows have again and again proven their efficacy in bringing like-minded producers and consumers together to see, touch, discuss and experience new products and ideas.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic swept in to change how the world does business. Event venues and planners, attendees, and just about every industry were all affected by a swift and sudden shift to digital events.

To illustrate just how ubiquitous—and effective—the trade show has been across industries, take a look at some of the top trade shows in the U.S. These are among the largest exhibitions in the world, and are essential to the industries they showcase:

  • Consumer Electronics Show (CES), the largest and most influential tech event in the world, drawing an incredible 175,000+ trade show attendees to Las Vegas.
  • E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo), one of the few big direct-to-consumer shows featuring video game developers and publishers offering hands-on exhibits for 45,000+ gamers and press in Los Angeles.
  • MAGIC, an annual marketplace that connects 60,000+ members of the global fashion industry in the massive Mandalay Bay Convention Center in Las Vegas.
  • National Restaurant Association Show, the food service industry’s largest annual trade show, brings 40,000+ attendees to Chicago to connect with suppliers of kitchen equipment and get a taste of what is new and exciting in the restaurant world.
  • AAPEX Show, during which automotive parts manufacturers exhibit to over 50,000 repair professionals, independent garages, auto retailers and distributors. This expo brings a whopping 175,000+ attendees to Las Vegas to marvel at emerging technology and participate in hands-on trainings and demonstrations.
  • Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show, called “The Greatest Boat Show on The Seven Seas,” brings together 100,000+ boat enthusiasts for a jam-packed 5 days of exhibition.

Most, if not all, of these major trade shows were negatively affected or cancelled by the COVID-19 pandemic and the shift to virtual events. Without the ability for MAGIC attendees to feel fabrics, National Restaurant Association Show attendees to taste food produced by new equipment, or E3 attendees to get their hands on forthcoming games, the efficacy of the event is seriously diminished. Clearly, the future of trade shows relies on a return to in-person events.

Trade Show Facts

In-person trade shows have been the birthplace of some of the most well-known and interesting ideas and products we know and use today.

  • The Ferris Wheel debuted in 1893 as the centerpiece of the Midway at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
  • Also at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, several products that are well-known today were introduced, including Juicy Fruit Gum, Cream of Wheat, Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and the motorized dishwasher.
  • The 1933 Homes of Tomorrow Exposition introduced the modern pre-fabricated home and new affordable home construction materials.
  • At New York’s 1964 World’s Fair, the first color television was introduced to the public, as was the first video calling machine called the Picturephone. Fairgoers had the chance to step into individual booths and video chat with people across the country at Disneyland.
  • The showstopper at the 1982 Knoxville World’s Fair? The debut of cherry Coke!

Virtual Trade Show Statistics

While the virtual trade show has its strengths, like its ability to be untethered from geographic location or the comparatively low virtual trade show cost for all involved, a truly effective trade show will never be a 100% virtual operation.

Why? Well, to begin with, exhibitors don’t enjoy them: An August 2020 survey from Tradeshow Logic reveals that many virtual trade show attendees are unsatisfied with the level of engagement with customers and prospects an online trade show provides—in fact, 43% of exhibitors who have participated in a virtual trade show say they won’t do so again. Take a look at a few more key virtual exhibition stats to see why and how virtual trade shows are less effective than their in-person counterparts:

  • 67% of survey respondents who have participated in a virtual event said the networking element failed to meet their expectations.
  • 46% of respondents said they failed to gain leads at virtual events in which they participated.
  • 33% of respondents said virtual events in which they participated did not meet their new product introduction expectations.
  • 45% of respondents who have not yet attended a virtual conference or trade show said they do not plan to do so in the next 12 months.

Take notice of that last statistic: It suggests the benefits of in-person trade shows—like face-to-face networking, lead generation, and hands-on new product introduction—are so important to industry professionals, many aren’t willing to forego the in-person experience.

The Challenges of Virtual Trade Shows

It goes without saying that virtual trade shows have served an important purpose over the last year. They brought like-minded folks together in some capacity when it was otherwise impossible to gather. But the outcome of these events has been lackluster, some to the point of utter disaster.

In-person trade shows and corporate events don’t just benefit businesses and business people. The innovations, creativity and networking inherent to in-person trade shows have a ripple effect on the industry at hand, spreading into other industries and across the world. Other benefits of in-person trade shows include:

  • Raising brand awareness through eye-catching displays, social media information distribution, and face-to-face connections.
  • The opportunity for face-to-face meetings with potential partners, allowing for a chance at a good first impression and the possibility of entering new verticals.
  • Leads are highly-targeted and gathered under one roof, making it easier to nab and close deals on the spot.
  • The opportunity to analyze competitors simply by taking a stroll around the show floor to see what other companies are doing to attract customers.
  • Educational sessions and workshops to further industry and product knowledge.
  • High ROI: According to a survey by Statista, 74% of responders said they were more likely to purchase products that had been promoted at a trade show.

Now that we understand what in-person trade shows offer that virtual trade shows don’t, let’s unpack the most challenging and disappointing aspects of virtual trade shows and corporate events.

Testing and Demonstrating Products is Difficult

It’s all but impossible to truly experience a product virtually. It’s the reason we buy our produce at a grocery store rather than online, use makeup and perfume testers at cosmetics stores, and try on clothes before we buy them. We’ve established that trade show attendees enjoy in-person events because of the myriad opportunities to test, touch, feel and understand new products, so it follows that a virtual trade show would be disappointing in this regard. Even with modern technology offering workarounds like interactive, digital 360° product visualization at a virtual trade show booth, attendees are missing out on the hands-on aspect usually provided at an in-person event.

It Is Challenging to Learn Multiple Virtual Event Platform Technologies

Nobody enjoys having to learn a new technological platform, whether it’s a transition from Windows to Apple products or the learning curve on a new social media platform like TikTok. The #1 challenge identified by exhibitors and sponsors responding to the Tradeshow Logic survey was a lack of adequate time to prepare content—and the #2 challenge identified was that the burden of learning multiple virtual event platform technologies falls squarely on exhibitors.

Learning to use new platforms and technologies takes away valuable preparation time for exhibitors, a particularly detrimental element when you consider how crucial engaging content becomes in a digital event. Suffice it to say, exhibitors are not enthusiastic about having to study up on new platforms simply to participate in a virtual trade show—especially when they feel they could be using that precious time more wisely.

Attendees Are Less Likely to Participate and Be Engaged

Anyone who has ever snuck in some online shopping during a work Zoom can attest to this challenge: It is much more difficult to hold an attendee’s attention during a virtual event. Clicking around virtual trade show booths and exhibitions can get boring, but it also cuts down on how many meaningful connections can be made during the event. The Tradeshow Logic survey backs this up: The third most-troubling challenge identified by responding exhibitors and sponsors was lack of participation inside the exhibit “hall” and minimal engagement with customers and prospects.

Again, the personal, face-to-face element of a trade show is about more than handshakes and schmoozing: It has a real effect on the quality and quantity of connections made, leads generated and overall value of the event. A virtual event simply cannot compete with the priceless opportunities afforded by an in-person trade show.

Attendees and Exhibitors Ability to Communicate and Connect is Severely Diminished

Ever had a hard time parsing the tone of a text? Now imagine that on a corporate scale. During a virtual trade show or event, the lines of communication between exhibitors and attendees become extremely clunky. The inorganic flow of a virtual trade show—scrolling through pages instead of being drawn naturally to a certain exhibitor—can be disengaging at best and frustrating at worst.

Humans are made to communicate face-to-face, where we can make lasting impressions, connect names to faces to businesses, and so on. Even the simple trading of business cards becomes ten times more complicated at a virtual event!

Virtual Trade Show Example: CES 2021 – A Total Flop

Earlier in this blog, we touched on CES, one of the most anticipated and influential tech events of the year. In July 2020, CES announced that it would host a virtual trade show in January 2021, which shocked exhibitors, attendees and industry experts alike. Many expected CES 2021 to exemplify the power of virtual networking, and to be a shining testament to the possibilities of virtual events.

Unfortunately for CES exhibitors and attendees, things did not go according to plan.

When the virtual expo “hall” opened on Jan. 11, 2021, attendees were met with a cut-and-dry list of bland web pages in a decidedly user-unfriendly format. Companies who were used to having the full creative depth and breadth of trade show booth signage, marketing, demos and beyond suddenly had no way to substantially differentiate themselves from their competitors, reduced only to a company name and logo in a Yellow Pages-like directory.

According to EXHIBITOR Online, of the 1,958 virtual trade show booths visited by their reporters, only a few dozen offered anything akin to a virtual exhibit or activation. Even fewer incorporated anything beyond text, images, and videos. A small handful boasted augmented or virtual-reality experiences, and less than 1 percent enabled truly live interaction or engagement.

Attendees love in-person trade shows for the human element: The crowded and colorful exhibition floor, the thrill of discovering a perfect solution, product or partner, and the feeling of being right on the cutting edge of one’s industry. CES 2021 was a well-intentioned but ultimately fruitless attempt to replicate those experiences which are necessarily undistillable in a digital format. A virtual exhibition featuring uninspired online trade show booth design, a lack of real connections and a dearth of inspired content falls short of attendee expectations on very level.

Returning to In-Person: Tips for Trade Show Success

Luckily for industries across the globe, the in-person trade show is slowly returning. While we’re all eager to return to the show floor, it is important to remember that etiquette for in-person events has irrevocably changed since COVID-19. You’ll want to keep your health and the health of others top of mind during the event. If you’re the event host, providing guests with ample space to browse the booths without feeling uncomfortable or unsafe will be key.

Here are some other helpful tips for trade show success when in-person events return:

  • Let guests guide your greeting: Shaking hands is a hard habit to break, but one route for your trade show booth staff to go is to let booth guests guide this interaction. If they don’t opt for a handshake, or instead initiate an elbow-bump or wave, follow their lead!
  • Show you care through cleanser: Demonstrate to guests that you value their health and safety by providing access to hand sanitizer throughout the exhibit or at your booth, or give out pocket-sized sanitizers as your event freebie.
  • Please mind the gap: Encourage proper social distancing by using signage, floor stickers and other materials to indicate where guests should stand in line or space themselves throughout a booth.
  • Mask up: If your event is indoors, model proper mask behavior by ensuring all staff and exhibitors are wearing a mask over their nose and mouth. Offer disposable masks at the venue entrances and encourage attendees to wear masks throughout the event.

Host Your Next Trade Show or Corporate Event at Earle Brown

In-person trade shows are bound to come roaring back in the coming year, and not a moment too soon: The significant networking and lead-generation benefits of in-person corporate events simply can’t be replicated by online expos. If you’re eagerly planning your in-person trade show for 2022 or beyond, Earle Brown Heritage Center would be proud to be your venue!

We’ve seen it all when it comes to trade shows, exhibitions, conferences and other corporate events, and our event planning team is ready to help you navigate the new trade show landscape. Connect with us today to learn more about hosting your extraordinary event at Earle Brown Heritage Center or to request more information!

The Future of Trade Shows: FAQs

But wait, there’s more! In addition to our tips for returning to in-person trade shows and events, there are a number of frequently asked questions that event planners, exhibitors and attendees are asking. While there are still many unknowns as to how corporate events will proceed in 2022 and beyond, these are our event planning experts’ answers to our most pressing trade show questions:

Q: How do trade shows work in the new era?
A: As in-person trade shows slowly return to the forefront of major corporate marketing events, planners, exhibitors and attendees can expect to see a strong focus on health and safety, likely staying in-line with standard COVID safety protocols (masking, social distancing, increase cleaning and disinfection) well into 2022 and beyond. We’d recommend keeping an eye on trade show industry news, as well as your state and county’s COVID guidelines, to stay up-to-date on current event practices and trends.

Q: What is expected trade show attendance?
A: Generally speaking, exhibitors and attendees are chomping at the bit to get back to in-person trade shows: Nearly half of the respondents (43%) in the Tradeshow Logic survey who had participated in virtual conferences or trade shows said they were unlikely to participate in more. This dissatisfaction, while unfortunate for exhibitors at virtual trade shows, bodes well for trade show attendance statistics moving forward. Interest is piqued and demand is high, so in-person events will likely be well-attended when they return.

Q: Will trade show space cost go up?
A: Ultimately, the question of trade show space cost will largely depend on the venue, anticipated attendance of the event and number of exhibitors, making it difficult to offer a one-size-fits-all answer here. If events continue to observe proper social distancing, event planners and exhibitors will need more space to account for these new guidelines, resulting in a higher cost. Wise event planners and exhibitors may wish to set aside a little extra room in their budget for space costs, just in case.