The Changing Nature of Trade Shows

Skift Take


Did you notice that trade shows are changing? As always change brings opportunities and risks. Here is what you need to know.

Changing tradeshows

Trade shows are evolving into new experiences.

The exponential change we are witnessing is mainly due to technology and the economy.

Technology is captivating the attention of the event industry. You wouldn’t read this blog and I wouldn’t get to speak at events like these otherwise.

Tech and social are affecting the way we consume trade shows as attendees. Tech is also impacting the way trade show professionals measure success.

The change is visible. It is not a fad, dear reader. Despite the industry resistance, tech is prevailing.


The economic landscape of the past 5 years significantly impacted the way we plan and consume trade shows.

Justifying the travelling, the expenses and the loss of work days just to ‘get to know about the latest developments of the industry’ (the universal value proposition of modern trade fairs) is simply not enough anymore.

5 Ways Trade Shows Have Changed For Good

Several trends are impacting the way we attend and plan exhibitions. Most of them are mega or macro trends impacting the event industry as a whole, from weddings to festivals.

Yet there are change factors that are impacting specifically trade shows and these changes are here to stay.

Let’s have a look at some of them…

New Customer Relationships

The historic value proposition of going to exhibitions was to get to learn about developments in the industry.

Trade shows were the only chance we had to get up close and personal with brands and to learn about the latest news about their service or product offering.

Not anymore.

Relationships with our service providers have become very personal, thanks to social networks. Product announcements happen as an offline apex of established online relationships. In Foursquare terms, exhibitions are becoming Super Swarms.

While in the past attendees had no other means to be up to date with companies’ developments, they are now in command of the latest news and information of the socially engaged organization.

As a result, exhibitors are less relying on tools like press conferences and show floor announcements in favour of year long engagement programs that culminate into trade show deployment. Often times this process is fuelled by a constant stream of content and interactions at different social touch points.

Exhibitions Used to Be Free

6 years back I wrote an article on how free events were going to become popular in the following years.

This has been the case for a while but the trade show industry faced one of the most significant business models we witnessed in a while, hosted buyers programs (HBP).

These programs are having an incredible impact on sponsors and exhibitors engagement – not without controversy – profoundly changing the experience for the rest of us.

I’ll sum up HBP very shortly:

– the exhibition accurately profiles prospective participants, qualifying them against strict criteria that match sponsors demands.

– the participants commit to a certain numbers of appointments with relevant exhibitors

– the show pays for travel and accommodation expenses for the selected hosted buyers

This changes everything.

In the past, we used to pay to attend events, then they became free, now we are getting expenses paid to attend.

And the fun does not end here. It looks like several exhibitions are now charging general attendance in favour of hosted programs, effectively discouraging irrelevant audiences to attend.

It looks like footfall won’t be a measure of success after all and that trade show organizers finally realized that sponsors are not looking for noise, they want targeted business.

The noise reduction is definitely a good sign, yet the dynamics of effectively dedicating budget to pay for attendance destroys the whole concept of creating an engaging experience that will attract the relevant attendee. Which is the ultimate mission of every event.

There are a lot of question marks around the topic. I would love to hear what you think about it.

Exhibitors Measurement Was Only Expressed in Leads

While creating lead generation opportunities may still be the prime objective of exhibitions, this is definitely not the only measurement in a social media rich world.

I believe the experience of the Detroit Auto Show tells a story. Bloomberg Businessweek reports on the volume of tweets as the metric to analyse performance of exhibitors. This is the ranking of the largest car brands according to tweet volumes:

1) Ford: 24,080
2) Lexus: 7,460
3) BMW: 7,030
4) Mercedes: 6,220
5) Chevrolet: 6,180
6) Toyota: 5,960
7) Audi: 5,610
8) Nissan: 5,270
9) Porsche: 5,160
10) Cadillac: 3,570

While we are in a consumer environment and you may question the validity of such approach in b2b arenas, I believe there are two radical changes social is introducing to trade shows:

Socially engaged brands will have a competitive advantage at trade shows. By leveraging their year long comms the trade show will be the culmination of ongoing relationship

Success will be defined by the level of engagement generated at the trade show and benchmarked against competition

This is a guide on better social engagement for exhibitors.

Networking Happened in Confinement Areas

Networking is usually reason #1 or #2 why we attend trade shows (and events in general). When trade shows realised the immense opportunity of fostering networking, networking areas were born.

I hate networking areas. Don’t get me wrong, everything needs an ‘area’ on the show floor, yet I cringe when I see guests with their feet hurting for the lack of seating, hunting for 1 of the 5 stools allocated for 300 people.

On the other hand, I’ve noticed some shows that stepped it up. They drove big sponsorship money to facilitate networking, creating as a result amazing arenas where to relax, work, talk to others, have a drink or simply recharge your phone.

Another aspect that makes management teams look naive is thinking that networking only happens on the show floor.

I am asking you dear show manager, what tools are in place to facilitate online networking? ranging from social media programs to focused mobile apps.

Education Resembled an Infomercial

The need for education is booming in our industry. There is something more in demand though. Good Education.

I am talking about sessions with paid speakers and without the sponsor pitching their product at every viable opportunity.

I am talking about participative sessions with a clear learning opportunity.

While this was traditionally the objective of conferences, meetings, seminars and workshops – the distinctions are vanishing.

Hence why you could see some pioneers pushing strong learning opportunities together with the traditional show.

In Conclusion

The evolution of trade shows encompasses different aspects and it is mainly driven by the change in tech and the economy. Customers’ needs are evolving as a result.

This process has by no means ended. The evolution of exhibitions is a work in progress. Only those flexible enough will be able to capitalise on this once in a decade opportunity to gain competitive advantage.

A word of warning, change is never easy and can be painful. Results on the other hand will please you as attendees around the world are craving for different experiences.