Event Management

Why Trade Shows Haven’t Had a Smooth Transition to Virtual

Skift Take

In the last few weeks, we've seen virtual events become more widespread as an alternative to live events, but trade shows and exhibitions haven't made a particularly smooth transition. Here's a look at why. 


Based on our timeline, live events are unlikely to be permissible into next year, and this is especially true of trade shows due to their typical size and interactive nature.

Virtual events have quickly become a lifeline for the events industry as it struggles to survive the ongoing pandemic. Many high-profile events, including the annual Adobe Summit, have recently pivoted to virtual, and others like the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference have announced their virtual meetings for later this year.

These types of B2B conferences and seminars — and even B2C events such as concerts — are making a relatively smooth transition to virtual as there is a fairly hefty precedent for content-driven formats online already. However, there’s a major category of events missing from the list: trade shows.

Exhibitions and trade shows have been just as affected by lockdowns, but they haven’t developed a major presence in the virtual space. Forbes has been keeping track of all major industry events that have canceled, postponed, or pivoted to virtual, and most of the trade shows have either canceled entirely or pushed their events back to later in the year, with few making the leap to virtual.

While there is existing tech that aims to enable virtual exhibitions, some isn’t as robust as it needs to be, and trade shows present a unique set of challenges when transitioning online, which may explain why they’ve been slow to adapt.


Translating Trade Show Value to Virtual Environments

The exhibition industry is worth about $137 billion, with over over 30,000 trade shows and exhibitions taking place each year. That represents a lot of people coming together and many business deals being made — canceling these events outright for what could be 18+ months simply doesn’t seem like an option. At the very least, the opportunity cost should justify some robust virtual tech investment to recoup some of those losses.

That said, trade shows are arguably one of the most challenging events to virtualize. They’re built entirely around the in-person experience — including people’s ability to walk around from one booth to the next and engage in constant, often unplanned interactions with both exhibitors and each other.

Without unique and innovative experiences and novel booth activations, it can be difficult to recreate the value of a trade show online. From the prospective attendee’s perspective, what is the value add of attending a virtual trade show rather than simply doing online research and requesting a demo on an exhibitor’s website?

To preserve the value of the trade show experience, three core components that will present particular challenges in a virtual format are:

Learning and Discovery

Trade shows and exhibitions allow for easy exchanges of ideas and products in sessions, demos, and face-to-face discussions. Both exhibitors and attendees glean value from discovering what’s going on in their industry and making connections.

However, chance discoveries and serendipitous encounters are much more difficult when there’s no trade floor to peruse, where attendees might happen to find a new supplier next to the booth they were originally planning to visit.

Lead Generation

Exhibitors also need to be able to give product demos to anyone who requests one, and trade shows are an important marketing opportunity for them by offering both brand exposure and opportunities to launch products in an environment saturated with qualified leads.

Of course, certain demos can be scheduled and conducted virtually, and online events can still offer certain opportunities for sponsorship and branding, but the options are inherently less engaging by virtue of the limited sensory stimulation available.

Similarly, virtual events hinder exhibitors’ ability to hand out tangible samples or branded products, which is especially detrimental to trade shows in the food and beverage industry.

Closing Deals

One of the main objectives of trade shows is to bring companies together and foster new partnerships, and many attendees may find it necessary to physically see or try a product before they agree to a sale. Exhibitors will face new challenges in an unfamiliar format as they try to entice prospects, and specifically decision makers, to demos and deals in a virtual environment. They may feel more comfortable managing the experience through their own online channels, where they will have more control over presentation and potentially less direct competition within an existing space or platform.


Availability and Adoption of Virtual Tech

In order for a virtual platform to adequately meet an exhibition’s needs, it needs to go farther than offer basic webinar or live-stream capabilities that may suffice for a conference or similar event.

There are several virtual event platforms geared towards trade shows, but some of the tools currently on the market leave something to be desired, which may be contributing to the lackluster virtual debut of trade shows. For example, several don’t include video chat or the ability to host live demo sessions, both of which are crucial to facilitating typical trade show interactions.

In addition, the events market tends to be slow to adopt new tools, and virtual is a whole new circumstance for many. Over 60% of planners surveyed during our recent Pivot to Virtual event had never been involved in planning a virtual event. It’s possible that this hesitance with technology is being exacerbated by the relative complexity of trade show floors compared to more straightforward conference sessions, and by the wholly unfamiliar aspect of having to create an entirely virtual experience.

As event tech providers rush to provide solutions for virtual events, we can expect to see more development of trade-show specific initiatives to ensure the industry can continue to deliver value and foster connections while live events are on hold. However, we can’t rely exclusively on providers for the leadership required to keep trade shows alive during the crisis. Planners will have to be creative and think outside the box to make the most of existing solutions as well.



Event professionals have been getting a crash course in virtual events since it became clear that live events would be paused for longer than a few weeks. Many events have successfully pivoted to virtual instead of canceling or postponing, but trade shows involve a lot of complex elements, and have been slower to join the online trend and deliver the comparable value to their in-person equivalents. One solution may be to consider more content-oriented virtual trade shows in which exhibitors shift their investment to high-production-value presentations and education at booths.

IMEX will be launching an ambitious virtual event next month and will be one of the first major trade shows to do so. If successful, it may serve to showcase what’s possible and inspire future exhibitions. Virtual eventtech has also been rapidly improving across the board as the demand for online solutions increases, so it’s only a matter of time before trade shows experiences catch up.