Trade shows and conventions pretty much stopped with the Covid-19 pandemic. Many organizations tried virtual meetings, but attendee engagement was generally inferior compared to the old live events. Yet reports are coming in that many companies’ sales were unaffected by their absence from trade shows. The companies saved the money that previously had been spent on sponsorships, booths, collateral material, travel and hotels. Does this experience mean that trade shows will die off once the pandemic is over?
Companies, like bicyclists, can coast now and then, especially if they have good momentum and especially if their competition also coasts. However, when competitors start pedaling again (or peddling), companies that ignore trade shows will fall behind. The benefits of exhibiting will help trade shows and conventions to resume, though with some changes.
Trade show participation drives sales in three ways: continued sales to existing customers, sales to new buyers dissatisfied with their current providers and buyers attracted to a new offering. (Consumer-focused shows are different, as discussed below.)
For many good sales programs, the booth on the trade show floor is minor compared to the one-on-one appointments made to existing customers who attend the show. Zoom calls work best when complemented by periodic face-to-face meetings. The industry convention is a great place to set up multiple client meetings. Travel, hotel and entertainment is fairly cheap when a large number of meetings are held in a short time span. Companies may dial down attendance and sponsorship at conventions that are less important to them, but the trade shows with significant numbers of clients will still be valuable.
A small number of the people walking through the trade shows will be dissatisfied with their current suppliers. In fact, that may be a reason for attendance. A potential new provider won’t even notice they didn’t get the business because they did not show up at the trade show. Over time, however, picking up new business is vital, as a loss of some existing clients is inevitable.
Finally, trade shows are a great way to show off new products, including new variants of old products. Potential buyers may not be aware that the new products exist, they may not understand them, or they may not have been motivated to learn how the new products would benefit them. This is especially true for companies that sell their products through intermediaries (such as wholesalers or manufacturers’ representatives) and seldom get to meet their end users.
Business-to-business sales can survive a year or two without trade show exposure, but the value of increased sales will eventually win out relative to costs savings. Waiting until travel fully returns to normal sounds reasonable, but marketers should weigh the cost savings against the benefit from being one of only a few businesses selling your particular products at a show.
So the exhibitors will want to return, but will the attendees? Certainly those who are spending a good bit of money will want to attend in order to ensure they are getting the best products for their companies. Educational sessions may be less important now that people are used to webinars. Meetings that are primarily educational, rather than trade shows, will be more often virtual. However, the networking advantages of in-person meetings are strong. Many associations will have one or two large meetings a year, with education in between conducted virtually. Trade show producers may want to consider that those who have been coming because of the education, and not because they are buyers, don’t add much value to the exhibitors. Their registration fees, though, help pay the overall cost of putting on the show.
Old practices to encourage attendees to stop by booths, such as raffles based on dropping business cards off, flooded exhibitors with contacts that were not truly interested in buying. A goldfish bowl of uninterested contacts may not be worth following up with.
The changes in trade show environments make this an ideal time for exhibitors to up their game. Many companies set up booths but don’t show themselves very well, with salespeople sitting down while staring at their phones instead of greeting passers-by. Some of the sales people who do speak to people haven’t given much thought to what they want to pitch. And many companies miss the opportunity to set up one-on-one meetings with their clients who will be present.
Consumer shows will likely thrive as soon as people can mingle again. Most of the products displayed, such as weddings, boats and home improvements, are not frequent purchases. Consumers who attend the shows want to see multiple products and services offered and will likely not bother with those businesses that are absent.
The depths of a downturn—whether a traditional recession or a pandemic—may lead to pessimism about our long-term future. For trade shows, however, they perform a valuable function for businesses, which will lead shows to rebound once social distancing can be less severe.