I have a love-hate relationship with events. Especially trade fairs.
Too big, too hot, too much travel, too expensive, too little food, never enough sleep. When I’m there as an exhibitor, my colleagues who were so happy to be there often disappear halfway through the day. When I am there as a delegate, I am always disappointed with the little effort that goes into making the place look beautiful.
And above all, they are no longer functional. Because while the world has moved on, trade shows haven’t.
In 1983 the Harvard Business Review asked three industry captains why they were attending trade shows. “Because our competitors are there,” said Kenton E McElhattan of the National Mine Service Company. “It’s mostly about the picture.” The unnamed vice president of a “$ 200 million industrial company” said, “Trade shows are a self-continuing problem. If I could put that money into operating profit every year, I would be a superstar. But we’re going, we’re going. “
Not much has changed. The Vice-President’s tired, “We’re going, we’re going” is as likely to be heard today as it was 37 years ago. However, these shows continue to be a staple for B2B marketing. In the tech industry, they make up 40% of our budget (and a lot of time). Outside of technology, industries like manufacturing can spend up to 80% on shows, so they matter.
Or they were important. After months without them, they look like an expensive, time-consuming habit that we no longer need.
I’m talking about the classic fair, with its gray carpets and grayer booths occupied by bored-looking men in equally gray suits. Events will return. The importance of doing business with people is too great for them to be unable to do. But to do that, we no longer have to spend two days in an overheated exhibition center punctuated by three sleepless nights in a budget hotel.
We have the ability to rearrange events the way we want them. We have time to think about how to do this because events won’t restart anytime soon. Even if people wanted to leave, there is no way employers can put their employees at risk by forcing them to participate.
Asking why we go to trade shows is a good place to start rooting out the good and bad. Our jaded 1983 managers have the wrong reasons, but it’s very likely they have the same reasons many of us still leave. Because our competitors do. Because we always left. Because we can’t afford not to, even though it is impossible to tell what we will lose if we don’t.
But we also go because of the people and the value they bring. The best shows mix the right audience with inspiration – it’s worth seeing a really good speaker deliver a beautifully written keynote. This is also the opportunity to meet key prospects and customers. Adding meeting rooms to booths provides the opportunity to keep talking from the noise and bustle of the exhibition space.
Using technology to recreate the best parts of the show and lose the frustrating parts is our great opportunity. To go beyond the show’s keynote. Creating a human connection that brings people together, helps us meet people, make new contacts and build a community.
Instead of spending sweaty days on gray carpets, we could attend online events that are better tailored to our needs. Replace the one size fits all trade shows with something more precise, perhaps similar to online dating where exhibitors set up their booth and delegates swipe right to learn more. These can be smaller events, but they will be more focused and purposeful. Adobe Summit went from a large physical event to a virtual one in 30 days. So we’ve already started.
Keep looking ahead and imagine a virtual show where you can roam the halls as an avatar. The game industry builds interactive worlds of astonishing complexity. Could we use the money and time it takes to set up a physical show to create a virtual show?
Where are live events? Hopefully so fun, occasionally exciting, and mostly entertaining. Every rule has an exception and there is one fair that I really love: Vivatech in Paris. It’s a diverse, brilliant mix of exhibitors, from corporate giants like L’Oreal to highly specialized start-ups. Every corner of the hall is designed. No shell scheme, no gray and lots of color. You never know exactly who or what you will run into, although you can be sure that it is not a man in a gray suit on a gray stand fiddling with his phone.