Digitization: Why hybrid trade shows are the wrong way to pursue

Trade shows are becoming hybrid at the moment. This is supposed to allow visitors to choose whether they participate online or offline. I believe that this is the wrong way to pursue then the future is not "online-or-offline", but "online-offline-online".

Trade shows are becoming hybrid at the moment. This is supposed to allow visitors to choose whether they participate online or offline. I believe that this is the wrong way to pursue and that most trade show organizers should offer exactly the opposite. Because the future is not "online-or-offline", but "online-offline-online".

(Article originally published in German on

The pandemic and the event ban have hit trade show organizers hard. However, the shock has led to a lot of innovation and within a very short time, solutions for virtual trade shows have been developed. This was certainly the right move, as it allowed organizers to offer something during the pandemic. But the results of virtual trade shows were often questionable and everyone hoped that physical events would soon return.


The challenges hybrid trade shows hold

Even though Corona is not over yet, the trade show business will most likely restart in 2022. The question is what will become of the digitization initiatives put in place during the event ban.

Almost in unison, one can hear from event organizers that virtual trade shows no longer make sense after the end of the event ban. Instead, there seems to be the opinion that the future is hybrid. In most cases, including in this article, a hybrid trade show is understood to be a combination of a physical and virtual trade show. This should enable visitors and partly also exhibitors to decide whether they want to participate online or offline.

Hybrid leads to several problems. The concept of the hybrid fair creates two groups of visitors who have fundamentally different needs: the physical and the digital. For the second group, participation in the hybrid fair is nothing more than a virtual fair. But we have learned over the last 18 months that virtual trade shows don't work. In the context of hybrid, the starting point for organizers and exhibitors is even more challenging, because the virtual trade show must be held in parallel with a real trade show.

The bigger problem, however, lies with the other group. Hybrid takes the focus away from physical visitors, who are the more important customers of the trade show. This led to peculiar situations in the fall of 2021. For example, physical visitors at certain hybrid shows were only offered reduced exhibitor directories, which did not allow for serious preparation. All the energy was instead put into a virtual trade show platform that uniquely "opened" during the show and was geared towards livestreams and video calls. Physical visitors were offered worse user experience than before the pandemic - despite all the digitization efforts.


The antithesis of Hybrid: online-offline-online.

I imagine hybrid can work for certain global world-leading trade shows that have the resources. But the vast majority of trade show organizers, in my opinion, should do just the opposite.

The pandemic has answered the question of whether trade shows have a future with a resounding YES. We have all spent too much time in front of screens and have learned that online will not replace face-to-face encounters. Visitors don't want to decide between online or offline. Therefore, organizers should not offer it. Instead, they should celebrate physical events. If you weren't there, you're missing out. That's the nature of trade shows and it will remain so. No virtual attendance will come close to physical attendance.

This does not mean that trade shows should not offer anything online. They absolutely should. But the offer should not be "online-or-offline", but should correspond to today's visitor behavior. And this is "online-offline-online" (inspired by the book "Reinventing Live: The Always On Future of Events" by Denzil Rankine and Marco Giberti).

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Online: Before visiting, visitors want to get detailed information and prepare online. Very few people today want to walk through trade fair halls on the off chance that they will discover something relevant. And if they do, they have their smartphone in their hands and are simultaneously gathering information online.

Offline: Good preparation opportunities motivate people to visit - not just the trade show, but the right exhibitors. This creates relevant contacts, which is what visitors and exhibitors expect from the trade show.

Online: Today, visitors no longer leave the trade show with a stack of brochures to get information afterwards. They expect to be able to do this online 365 days a year. Up to now, trade show organizers have not satisfied this demand sufficiently.


A contribution to strong and successful trade shows

Organizers' digital initiatives should not focus on virtual participation, but on the time before and after the trade show. In this way, today's online-offline-online visitor behavior can be addressed. By doing this, organizers not only create an interesting business case, but contribute to strong and successful trade shows.

In order to realize this, it is not the virtual trade show platforms developed in the pandemic that are needed, but other systems. Conteo has been developing such a system for five years, which is successfully in use at a variety of different trade fairs: from B2B trade fairs such as Ilmac (Basel), European Rotors (Düsseldorf), Ifas (Zurich) or Kuteno (Rheda-Wiedenbrück) to special interest fairs such as Zebi (Lucerne) or Fruchtwelt Bodensee (Friedrichshafen) to pure B2C trade fairs such as Luga (Lucerne).

Sounds interesting? Would you also like to connect your exhibitors and visitors online before and after the trade fair? Get in touch with me at or find out more at