Is the trade show dead?

Alan Doyle, CEO North America

The CTA has confirmed that CES 2021 will be a virtual-only experience. For those of us in the events industry, another deathly blow has been dealt by Covid-19. Or... here’s another way of looking at it: Is the pandemic finally bringing about the demise of an industry that has been failing to deliver? Is it accelerating an inevitable shift in how brands and industries communicate?

Walking the show floor at CES - or substitute your favorite trade show here - is taking a tour through the mediocre. The majority of the booths are bland, unimaginative and tired. They’re the antithesis to what our industry should be and what is supposed to be the USP we enjoy over other forms of communication and marketing channels: a deep, rich, sensory brand experience.

I’m sympathetic to the brands who show up in this way. What choice do they have? An upcoming brand has to play the game and part of that is just being where the media and your customers are going to be. The monopoly the show organizers have is one of audience capture; nowhere else can these brands get 100,000 potential supporters in one place. Equally, their ability to stand out is hampered by production costs; a small brand is always going to appear mediocre when juxtaposed with the mega-brands and their mega-budgets - who will then monopolize the media attention. It is possible for the minnows to stand out through creativity - trying to think differently - but that’s a challenge in itself.

Is the trade show dead and how the pandemic affects brand activations and experiential.

Even pre-Covid, huge brands had already begun to ask, “what’s the point?”. Apple famously didn’t attend CES for 28 years and when they did show up this year, it was to discuss privacy - not promote their product. Microsoft was in and out throughout the last decade. In automotive land, auto shows have been declining for years, with major OEMs scaling back their presence on the global tour or withdrawing altogether: Volvo and Ford pulled out of Geneva last year; the Detroit autoshow has lost a dozen brands in the last few years, including Audi, Mercedes and Porsche. Many cite ‘value’ as the reason and believe an investment in proprietary activity will give a stronger ROI.

Of course, major brands can afford to make this decision as they’re almost guaranteed a good audience, wherever they show up. But here’s where the pandemic is having an interesting impact: it is, to an extent, levelling the playing field for brands activating experientially. The cost of creating an incredibly compelling virtual experience that grabs attention and tells your brand story well is lower than the in-person equivalent. And I say that as someone who wishes it weren’t true, as our business is highly dependent on this revenue stream at the moment.

This isn’t to say you don’t need to invest - production values are even more important to engage an audience that is at home, in front of a laptop - but simply that there isn’t quite the same insurmountable hurdle for brands that exists when your booth is literally dwarfed by the 50,000 sq ft behemoth next door. We’ve been making use of some fantastic, customized virtual platforms that will definitely grab attention and draw an audience in far more effectively than something off-the-shelf. The cost is surprisingly low and they act as a blank canvas on which to deliver a powerful, creatively driven piece of communication, that can be every bit as impactful as the world’s leading brands.

What about the audience? How do you get them in the first place? Isn’t that the real value the trade show organizers provide: bringing the critical audience to you? Yes, I think it is. But when the in-person show isn’t happening, that audience is just a list of emails. Get your own list. Seriously. It’s not beyond your organization to produce a list of the key people it really wants to talk to. Maybe you need to outsource its creation but guaranteed, the cost will be less than your typical trade show investment, even when you factor in the creation of a fantastic virtual experience.

How to make virtual experiences better than in person for trade show  live events experiential.

Ok, but will they come? Isn’t someone more likely to come to virtual CES than my event? Yes, “someone” is. But someone you really want to talk to? We don’t think so. One of the surprising things we’ve learned from those events that pivoted to virtual is that attendance has increased. The barrier to entry is so low - clicking a link from a calendar invitation - that more people are inclined to attend. And if your virtual experience is better than your competitors, they really will engage. Like the joke about outrunning the bear, you don’t need your virtual experience to be better than an in-person one; you need it to be better than everyone else’s virtual experiences.

Which is a logic that holds for now. Will it hold when we are allowed to meet in person again? No, of course not. We’re in the events and experiences game: of course we understand the enormous value of that real-world connection. Frankly, we can’t wait to be doing it again. However, a serious re-examination of your trade show strategy is not just an investment for the short term. Lockdown has accelerated change in so many areas of business and marketing; trade shows won’t go untouched. Think about what CFOs are learning about the cost of them; think about what sustainability committees are learning about reducing their travel impact; think about the success of the brands that are getting virtual right. Trade shows aren’t dead. They’re just resting. But when they wake up, they’ll never be the same again.