Ask ten people in industrial markets what they think about trade shows these days and you’ll get ten variations ranging from “they’re great” to “they’re worthless.” The truth is somewhere in between.
Decades ago, trade shows were the principal forum at which industry members interacted. Sales people and service technicians made their personal calls, but the technologists, engineers, upper and even middle management relied on trade shows for new ideas, gathering trends, meeting colleagues and seeing products up close and personal. The huge investments required to transport people and big capital equipment across the country or the world was more than worth it for the chance to meet with customers, talk to them, show them your solutions, maybe even have a meal together. Today, that world has changed. The Internet provides every industrial market employee an unlimited opportunity to interact, idea-share, take virtual tours and see demonstrations. Research is done with a keystroke and live chats can go on into the night. It’s tough to have dinner online, but gift cards are fast and downloadable. What is the place for trade shows in today’s market?
First, we have to agree that trade shows allow people to do one very important thing that is impossible to duplicate online. You can still meet your customers, colleagues and friends face-to-face and in-person. Marketing experts tell us all business is personal, and while Facebook and webcams may be grand, nothing is more personal than a live meeting. A trade show permits a good sales person, technologist or engineer to consolidate a lot of personal meetings in a few days that might otherwise require extensive travel over weeks or months. This benefit, however, assumes two things – that the people are going to “show up,” and that the sales, marketing and other personnel from the exhibiting companies are going to work hard at meeting customers.
One frequent complaint you hear about trade shows today is that the attendance is light. Perhaps, however, the expectations are too great. In today’s market, companies have to accept that fewer, but more highly motivated people will attend trade shows. Exhibit pre-planning now takes on more importance. Rather than booth personnel standing around big properties complaining about lack of traffic, sales personnel can arrange for more one-on-one meetings set up in advance. More papers, small, hands-on demos, and quality information will attract a more qualified audience. One company in the life sciences arena recently praised a trade show in which “every attendee was a prospective customer.” What do you think of that statement?
Perhaps that kind of planning, for smaller, more targeted meetings with “just the right people,” will take the place of the behemoth generalist shows.
The simple answer to the future of the trade show is that conferences have to do something you can’t do online. The more exhibitors grasp that fact and set up their trade shows accordingly, the more attendees will come to experience this otherwise missing interaction. Everyone has to change. Trade show associations need to examine their conferences for relevance in today’s market and adjust accordingly. Should that one big show be two or three smaller localized meetings? Exhibitors must understand what the “face-to-face interaction” opportunity can mean – beyond what can be done on a webcam.
With these questions effectively answered, attendees will “show up.” And fortunately, all of these things are already happening. It’s unlikely that trade shows will go away, but like many aspects of the industrial arena, to thrive they will have to change. Tell us about shows you’ve been to that made you think, “Now that’s how trade shows should be done”!