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The Future of Trade Show Exhibitions in a Digital World

A look at the pros and cons of technology at trade shows

Trade show exhibitions have been a part of the business world for over a century, with the first recognized show—The Great Exhibition—taking place under the reign of Queen Victoria in 1851. In the decades to follow, very little changed about the trade show industry. It wasn’t until the digital revolution that old-school exhibitions were given a modern upgrade, with the arrival of tech changing the game for good. But these days, the question is: how are our beloved trade shows going to fare in the future, and is there a place for them in a world that’s increasingly virtual?

COVID Gave Trade Shows a Push Towards Digital

If there was any slowing down in the uptake of technology at trade shows, COVID put a stop to that. With lockdowns in place and physical meetings often impossible, global exhibitions had no choice but to take to the digital world and allow businesses to show off their wares remotely. Exhibitions utilized webinars and more low-key online events to maintain their communities and encourage engagement from their audience, trying to claw back some of the revenue lost from not being able to host in-person events.

As COVID restrictions eased in late 2021 and 2022, some smaller trade shows and exhibitions began to pop up again. But with COVID concerns still at the forefront of many people’s minds, measures were taken to minimize safety risks. Social distancing measures were used to reduce the chance of COVID spreading, and tech solutions such as contactless card readers were brought in to keep physical contact to a bare minimum.

Now, trade shows can be held as normal, with little to no remaining COVID restrictions left to affect them. But, do people want in-person trade shows? Or is the world of the digital exhibition our new normal?

Response to Digital Trade Shows

Across the board, surveys are showing that guests still prefer to attend in-person trade shows over their virtual counterparts. Although webinars and online conferences are taking off in some industries, the trade show world is not one of them!

One study conducted by UFI in 2021 found that visitors regarded face-to-face events as better in nine out of eleven categories, including:

  • Making a new connection by chance
  • Quality of networking
  • Overall enjoyable experience
  • Sense of belonging to a community
  • Doing business

The two categories that saw either no difference or a preference for virtual trade shows were:

  • Quality of educational content
  • Cost of attending 

Meanwhile, exhibitors preferred in-person events across all categories they were asked to consider, with a whopping 86% in favor of leaving remote shows behind. 

No More Remote Trade Shows?

The evidence against virtual reality trade exhibitions and webinars is overwhelming, with both sides of the table preferring in-person events. For most shows, that’ll mean the end of remote events. However, it can’t be ignored that there are perks to having a virtual side to an event. It helps keep costs lower for attendees and opens the show up to a wider audience, including those who live further away or can’t travel.

In the same way that concerts are live-streamed and stage plays are broadcast directly into peoples’ homes, we wouldn’t rule out a hybrid of remote and in-person events in the future. 

A Revival of In-Person Trade Shows

Alongside the general preference for trade shows held in the real world rather than online, the UFI study also found that over 70% of respondents planned to attend either the same number of trade shows as they were before or with increased frequency. Despite the push that COVID made towards digital events, they’re no replacement for in-person shows. 

Hybrid Trade Shows

If, as we predict, trade shows are going to become a hybrid of in-person and virtual events, there will be a number of perks and limitations on either side. As research has shown, the biggest difference between in-person and online exhibitions is networking. After all, you can’t bump into a new connection in a lift or at the bar when you’re sitting in your living room! It’s unlikely, therefore, that networking will be a key aspect of virtual shows.

Instead, we expect to see a lot of keynote speakers and presentations, which are fantastic for engaging audiences both in-person and remotely. You don’t have to travel to hear an industry leader talk anymore, and by hosting both an in-person and virtual event the exhibition will reach a larger audience. It may be that some speakers you’d love to have can’t travel to the show, either, but can still attend and draw in crowds by speaking over Zoom.

With hybrid approaches, organizers don’t have to be restricted by location, allowing for more creative, knowledgeable, and large-scale events that still hold the benefits of face-to-face shows.

Trade Shows and Social Media

Another change you can expect to see moving forward is trade shows putting more focus on social media. Around a quarter of all social media users are watching live streams on their respective platforms already, and this is only expected to climb as the younger generation joins the tech world. What’s to stop a global exhibition from going hybrid via a social media live stream? It’s a fantastic, budget-friendly way to show off the businesses present and build a thriving online community.

Social media will be heavily used as a digital marketing strategy, too. If you have favorite trade shows, be sure to follow them on their social profiles and watch their marketing skew heavily towards these platforms.

Final Words

Trade shows aren’t a thing of the past just yet! In fact, traditional face-to-face exhibitions are still the most popular format available, and we can’t imagine that changing anytime soon. At the same time, though, let’s not underestimate the power of digital tools to create revolutionary hybrid trade shows. 

Editor's Note: Keep your eyes open for registration to open for Catersource + The Special Event, a top event industry trade show and conference!

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