During the last 2 years, the exhibition industry has experienced a digitization push. The driver for this is obvious: Covid-19. But I think it was the wrong one. Digitization should not strive to enable a virtual show visit, but rather enrich the offline experience.
During the last 2 years, the exhibition industry has experienced a digitization push. The driver for this is obvious: Covid-19. But I think it was the wrong one. Digitization should not strive to enable a virtual show visit, but rather enrich the offline experience. Otherwise, trade shows could face the same fate as virtual shopping centers in the 90s.
During the pandemic a multitude of virtual trade shows and digital extensions have emerged that allow visitors to participate online. This certainly made sense during the times of strong restrictions. But: does it also make sense in the longer term? Are the solutions that addressed the challenges resulting from Covid (event bans, fewer visitors due to restrictions, etc.) also the solutions that will enrich trade shows when they can again take place normally?
Personally, I doubt it. I am convinced that digital extensions are the way to go - the starting point should just be a different one. Rather than enabling visitors to digitally participate in the show, organizers should think about how to address the changing buying behavior. The changes have occurred in the B2B and B2C environment for quite some time, independent of Corona. And the new behavior has been served very little by trade shows up to now.
Trade shows must be able to serve new buying behavior
In some (few) areas, the buying process has been completely digitized. In the vast majority of cases, however, the process is neither strictly offline nor online - but both. Example: I am an avid skier. I always buy my skis in a sports store and will continue to do so in the future, because advice, the haptic experience of the skis and worry-free service are important to me. But: I wouldn't dream of going into a sports store without already knowing which two or three ski models come into question. I research this in detail online beforehand. In the store, I have my thoughts confirmed and clarify any unanswered questions. After the purchase, I want to be kept up to date about discounts or new products rather passively, e.g. via newsletters or social media.
It is precisely this new buying behavior that trade shows must be able to serve, and they must expand their events to include digital elements for this purpose. It is not a matter of virtually reproducing what works well live, but of combining the specific advantages of online and live. Therefore, let’s have a look at their respective strengths and weaknesses.
Asynchrony vs. simultaneity
A big advantage of online is that the delivery of information doesn't have to happen simultaneously with its consumption. For example, I'm happy that I can do my ski research in a free hour on a Sunday afternoon while every sports store is closed. Conversely, one of the great advantages of live is that everyone is there at the same time. For many visitors, this is an important factor because it makes it easy to meet business partners in person.
Reproducing this simultaneity online doesn’t really make sense. Why, for example, should two business partners wait a month until a virtual or hybrid trade show takes place to make a video call? Why should everybody be online at the same time? In my opinion the digital elements of exhibitions should rather be asynchronous and target the time before and after the show.
Overview vs. detail
Trade shows often claim that they provide a good overview. Personally, though, I think this works better online. Online, I can quickly sift through large amounts of information and get an overview. However, when it comes to the important details and challenging questions, online reaches its limits. These can be clarified much better in personal discussions at trade shows.
Nowadays, it would be a waste to use the precious time during a trade show for the general overview (e.g. to gather product information). Visitors should already have this at the time of the trade show. I therefore believe that the digitization efforts of trade shows should lead to providing online the place where visitors can get an overview over the industry as easily as possible. So that they can then come to the event for clarification of the crucial details.
Unfortunately, a lot of the hybrid trade show platforms do the opposite. They try to create the event momentum online by limiting access to the information through registration walls, lead capture mechanisms and the like.
Do virtual shopping centers and virtual trade shows have anything in common?
Since online and live have different advantages, it's questionable whether it works to successfully enable visitors to participate in a show online. I could imagine Benedict Evans is right (his very interesting article on the subject): there was a lot of investment in virtual shopping malls in the 90s. As it turned out, the way shopping centers aggregate supply and demand works offline, but not online. Online, other ideas have prevailed. Perhaps the same is true for virtual and hybrid trade shows?