It would be a bit ‘below the belt’ to suggest that the time and the place for trade shows was, in fact, 1995 and that now, nearly twenty years on, there are more immersive, exciting and efficient ways of sourcing suppliers and sharing ideas.
Of course, for the past couple of decades at least, the primary raison d’etre for trade shows and exhibitions has been to ‘meet people’ – ask anyone and an annual industry ‘get together’ is almost always the number one reason.
It’s quite significant then that, last week, Mash Media acquired the event industry’s biggest (and most long standing) trade show, Confex. It’s no secret that Confex has struggled to stay relevant in recent years and the (eventually inevitable) move across London to Excel came at a pivotal moment in the behemoth’s illustrious history*. Or is it simply a sign of the (shifting) times? The apparent success of the new Meetings Show as well as the continued buoyancy of Square Meal’s market leading Venues & Events show would suggest otherwise (although one of Square Meal’s corporate keynotes this year spoke about why they no longer attend trade shows, which was mildly ironic if not a little confusing).
In reality, trade shows are coming and going more frequently than ever before. In fact, the figures suggest that they are mostly going and, as the market contracts, Darwinian rules take hold and it’s, quite literally, the survival of the fittest. This tells a story. The increasingly pressurised, time-poor marketplace no longer has the time or inclination to entertain anything that isn’t essential (or at the very least, useful).
So, what are the alternatives? The internet? Networking events? Educational Forums? Training days? Google Hangouts, Webinars, Skype? Well, yes actually, all of the above. What’s more, we can choose one element at a time and focus on it. That’s the challenge for trade events. In this day and age it takes a monumental effort to convince people to venture across town. The fact is, though, that trade shows are still massively profitable. You can charge a hugely disproportionate amount for five square metres of a shed. And then get your exhibitors to promote the show for you. It’s a genius formula, if not a lasting one.
To untangle this entire debate, it’s important to look back at where the trade show came from. Back in the day, trade associations needed a communal stomping ground, an annual get together to regulate, share ideas and best practice and, in some cases, stake their claim and lobby the government on issues related to their trade. The internet was more far fetched than Superman. Back then the big three were monthly trade magazines (that went out of date five minutes after going to print), trade shows and Awards Ceremonies (that were as long-winded as they were boring and, often, rigged anyway!). The big three now, are sector specific websites (as multi-faceted real-time resource centres), educational networking events and online awards (aka ‘User Reviews’). It’s real and real-time (and doesn’t cost the earth either).
For all these reasons, trade shows are trying to artificially mimic the internet by driving traffic (foot-fall) and injecting content at every opportunity. The only problem is that SEO doesn’t work on an exhibition hall floor. And, with the best turn-out in the world, it’s never going to be as good as a targeted email ‘open rate’ or, indeed, a relevant website’s monthly traffic. These days, the seven thousand ‘quality’ people that turn up to see ‘you’ on your exhibition stand can’t come close to the number of quality people who visit a well optimised, content rich website. It’s no longer all about two days. It’s about 365 days and access to a global shop window. A shop that’s always open for business.
An industry colleague (who shall remain nameless to protect the innocent) came up with a cynical but hilarious ‘spoof’ trade show called, rather brilliantly (and scarily realistically), ‘EventEX’. It sums up and highlights everything that’s wrong and out-dated with exhibitions, in a very funny way!
Here’s the promotional poster (click to enlarge & read it carefully!):
Of course, ‘face to face’ is the best form of marketing and often forms a tangible focal point within a much wider (mostly) digital campaign. But, if you want to find something specific in business, do you really need to travel to an exhibition hall (on a specific, possibly inconvenient, date) and, after collecting your free bag (and pen), find someone in a shell-scheme booth and take their word for it? I suspect you may rather research it from you own desk (in five minutes), read a couple of (recent) reviews, compare what you’ve found with a few of their competitors and then email (or even ring) the ones you’re interested in having a meaningful meeting with (without the pleasure of a belting tenor screaming down your ear, from across the aisle)?
I’m not coming from a purely digital perspective either. A few years ago we tried to re-invent the trade show because we felt it was out-dated. We created something we called Londonlaunch:live and, although we tried to turn the entire market on it’s head by replacing traditional stands with ‘Digital Canvases’ and the show guide with an app that we called ‘Who’s in the Room’, it wasn’t so much a step too far as it just wasn’t a step far enough. This speaks volumes because industry detractors (a rival show turned up en-masse to tweet negative comments about it so worried were they that their traditional show would be seen as ‘old fashioned’) were very quick to rubbish our concept and, to a certain extent they were right! Why update something that’s probably already run its course? Londonlaunch:Live has since naturally evolved into our critically acclaimed ‘LiveTech – technology for events’ conference, in partnership with George P Johnson, taking place at The Crystal, a sustainable cities initiative by Siemens.
At Londonlaunch.com, we’ve embraced digital marketing and have chosen to run with it. Our site is dynamic, interactive, intuitive, organic and user-generated, providing a fluid, immersive and content rich resource centre for event organisers of all types and sizes, enabling them to discover cool new event-related things and, ultimately, create great events. It’s very simple and gives people exactly what they want, when they want it and that’s why our traffic is up over 200% on last year. There’s no free pens though, so if that’s what you’re after, head on down to EventEX!
Will Broome CEO
*Since this story was written, Confex has announced a move back West, to Olympia.