Are Trade Shows Poised for a Rebound?

A return to meeting in person may be slow, but aspects of live events simply can’t be duplicated

Are Trade Shows Set for A Rebound?

Business-to-business sales conversations shifted en masse to video calls, telephone and digital communication in 2020, but B2B marketers and salespeople held out hope that 2021 would be different. The arrival of vaccines, it was thought, would create a way back to meeting in person.

Paul Bowers is one of those who was eager for trade shows to return. Bowers is publisher of Airport Improvement, a trade publication that is sent to airport managers, their consultants and suppliers across North America. “If I do the planning correctly, each of our seven issues [per year] will have something tied to bonus distribution at a trade show,” Bowers said.

Not only are Airport Improvement’s advertisers enticed by the issues getting into people’s hands at industry events, the publication’s sales reps rely on the trade shows to make inroads with prospects and enhance relationships with current clients.

When the American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE) announced it was reconvening its annual conference and expo in person in July in Las Vegas, it was a good news/ bad news situation. Bowers and his team could reconnect with key clients and return to distributing extra copies of their publication. However, the show organizers announced their COVID safety protocols would include a limit of two staffers per exhibitor in the conference center. Bowers has two sales reps in addition to himself.

As publisher, Bowers was committed to being present all three days of the show, so the lobbying began by his two other sales reps for the magazine’s coveted second exhibitor badge. A plan was made to bring both reps to Las Vegas and have the team share time in the exhibit hall. Ultimately, the two-person limit was lifted by the time show opened, so that fix wasn’t necessary.

Rescheduling the Reschedules

After a pandemic-induced shutdown in 2020, trade shows and other live marketing events have started to occur once again. This summer’s emergence of the Delta variant forced a second year of postponements and cancellations for many shows that had hopes of relaunching, but others took place, albeit with decidedly lower attendance.

It’s often said that polls and surveys are a snapshot of sentiment at a certain time. That appears to be the case with an EXHIBITOR Media Group survey of corporate exhibit managers in March that showed 89% expected their clients to return to trade shows by the end of this year. That was prior to the summer spike in COVID cases nationwide.

In a more recent EXHIBITOR poll that has not yet been published:

  • 81% of corporate exhibit managers said they strongly prefer face-to-face interactions (with another 17% stating they “somewhat prefer” face-to-face contact).
  • 71% said the cancellation and postponement of in-person trade shows and events negatively affected their company.
  • 52% stated they have already returned to in-person trade shows and another 24% wanted to do so by the end of this year.

Many now hope a “return to normal” for trade shows will occur next year, but they can’t say with any confidence that it will.

“Nobody anticipated that it would last anything close to this long,” said Terry Matson, president and CEO of Visit St. Paul/RiverCentre, the Minnesota capital city’s convention and visitors bureau. “We’ve hit play. We’ve hit pause. We’ve hit repeat. We’ve scheduled, rescheduled and rescheduled the reschedule with meetings and conventions time and time again.”

Matson estimates that St. Paul’s RiverCentre and the associated Roy Wilkins Auditorium hosted one-third of the events it originally had on the books for 2021. He said another one-third was rescheduled and the last one-third “went down the drain.”

A larger concern within the exhibiting industry is that “normal” in terms of exhibiting strategies will be redefined, as some companies permanently reduce trade show marketing budgets and operate with smaller staffs. Naomi David, senior marketing manager at Chicago-based marketing agency Walker Sands, said her own company has decided since the pandemic struck to place more emphasis on smaller live marketing events going forward rather than the large trade shows they once participated in. Hosting executive dinners with 10 to 12 clients or prospects, and sponsoring marketing book clubs (virtually until meeting in person is safe) provide a more intimate connection that Walker Sands prefers, David said.

“We’re not a SaaS company selling software or products. We are selling our people and our services. That in-person connection on an intimate basis has been really beneficial for folks as they decide whether they want to work with us,” she said.

Trade Show Disciples

Others are eager to walk trade show aisles again to meet their clients and prospects in person.

When asked whether she was ready to get back to a full slate of in-person events, Airport Improvement National Sales Director Victoria Jensen said, “YES! With all capital letters! Not just for me, but for our industry. Being at a trade show and seeing your customers and who they are talking with, hearing what they just did, or a sale they’re making, you don’t get that from a telephone conversation or an email.”

The March EXHIBITOR magazine survey found that the cancellation and postponement of trade shows has generated an “absence makes the heart grow fonder” effect on upper management, but the report states not to the extent that some may have hoped. Forty-three percent of survey respondents stated the downturn has made the value of trade shows and face-to-face marketing more obvious to members of the C-suite. That was an increase of 18 percentage points since a similar survey in May 2020.

How has the cancellation and/or postponement of live trade shows impacted your company?

EXHIBITOR Editor Travis Stanton said while he would like to see that percentage even higher, it is a strong indication that the long-term future of trade shows is secure.

Have your virtual exhibits and/or digital events generated more or fewer sales leads than comparable live activations?

Bowers, the publisher of Airport Improvement, said advertising revenue dropped by about 12% from 2019 through 2020, and it was the advertisers who are attracted to bonus distribution at industry events that made up the bulk of that loss.

Asked how he measures return on investment from his trade show marketing, Bowers said, “I look at the big picture of what makes us unique and what is important in terms of aligning ourselves and having a sense of differentiation that others would be able to see as it relates to our editorial, circulation or our sales messaging to advertisers. I don’t put pen to paper like a bean counter would. It’s more intuitive than that. But it does need to strategically pair up with what I believe is important.

“What I relish is going to conferences where I’m the only publication there,” he added. “I have three competitors in the airport market. Who doesn’t like going into a setting where there isn’t a competitor?”

Sales Leads Suffer In a Virtual World

As the EXHIBITOR survey of corporate trade show managers makes clear, a primary reason for the broad preference of in-person events is the quantity and quality of sales leads that are generated at live shows compared to virtual events. When asked to rate the value of virtual trade shows and/or exhibits, corporate marketers averaged 3.9 (on a scale from one to 10). Meanwhile, when asked to rate the value of virtual conferences, that average increased to 5.1.

“Virtual channels may be better at approximating the live experience in terms of content and educational programming, but they are less successful at being a viable alternative to in-person exhibiting and lead qualifying,” the report states.

“One of the things we hear a lot when discussing the difference between a live trade show and a virtual trade show or conference is when you think about the way that trust is established, you’re talking about eye contact, body language, handshakes, listening to the tone of somebody’s voice. It’s very difficult to establish the level of trust that a buyer needs virtually — especially when you’re talking about a multimillion- dollar corporate relationship,” Stanton said.

Mike Landry, director of corporate sales for Tumi, leads a team that sells the luggage maker’s products to corporate users for recognition and other programs. Landry said under normal circumstances, his company participates in about a dozen trade shows annually. Tumi plans to “aggressively be on the road in 2022,” Landry said.

“There is no question as to the value of a face-to-face conversation with a customer or prospective customer that has made a conscious decision to walk into your booth,” he said. “His or her mind is open to what you have to say and, by virtue of the fact that they are physically standing in front of you, it leads to a positive interaction. In effect, this individual has self- selected to be someone that you should invest your time and resources into. I have always felt that when I look back on even some of the more average shows that I have done, it would be virtually impossible to have meaningful meetings with all of the individuals that I talked to, and that doesn’t even take into consideration the fact that these individuals consciously made the decision to speak with me.”

The David James Group is a full-service marketing firm that helped its clients — primarily associations and other nonprofits — shift to digital events during the pandemic. President and Partner Ron Zywicki said most are eager to return to holding live events.

“I’ve heard more than a few clients refer to coming back in person as a homecoming,” Zywicki said. “There are certain things you can do virtually, but the energy from meeting face- to-face and being able to have ad hoc conversations in the hall is what people are excited about. People are generally and genuinely ready to connect in person.”

Will Attendees Return?

Clearly, a majority of companies that relied on trade shows to connect with prospects and existing customers are eager to get back to meeting in person. But what about attendees?

Businesses continue to evaluate their travel needs and are in the driver’s seat regarding how quickly in-person trade shows and events can return. They are mindful not only of their employees’ health as the pandemic drags on, but also the savings that has resulted from a nearly complete shutdown of travel for two years. Many shows that were canceled or shifted online in 2021 were a result of insufficient attendee registration.

In September, Wall Street Journal business travel columnist Scott McCartney wrote, “There’s increasing evidence that a fair amount of business travel will be permanently curbed by technology. Video calls don’t require hours of waiting in airports, sitting on cramped airplanes or nights away from family.”

Consultants such as McKinsey and Delloite have released reports stating that business travel will return unevenly through 2022. Estimates of permanent loss in business travel spend range from 15% to 36%.

Trade shows will rely increasingly on customers’ desire to have a hands-on experience with new products to draw attendees, as well as the networking that occurs. The educational component of these events translates well to virtual audiences, and many trade show sponsors have plans to permanently incorporate a hybrid element to their events.

Naomi David of the marketing agency Walker Sands said businesses that relied primarily on trade shows and other live events to connect with prospects will need to adapt. Trade shows aren’t going to disappear completely, but businesses must be flexible enough to meet clients and prospects where they want to meet, she said, whether that’s virtually, in the small-group settings that Walker Sands has shifted to, or at large trade shows that draw thousands of attendees.

“It’s not a bad question to ask your attendees how they like to receive their content. Are they having event fatigue? We could hypothesize all day, but you don’t really know unless you’re asking the people who attend your events how they want to absorb content and whether they want to come to in-person events.”


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