Covid is still with us, but pandemic has become endemic. What does that mean for the future of trade shows?
In 2020, the global exhibition industry contracted by 68%. More than 220 exhibitions were cancelled or postponed across Europe, with economic losses calculated at €5.8 billion. You probably don’t need us to remind you of that: you lived through it just as we did.
There was a period when we perhaps thought the future of events was…well, non-existent. But then vaccines arrived and, in the meantime, the world made a pretty good job of working around the problem. We did it so well that, even now, with restrictions lifted (almost) everywhere, 30% of event organisers still plan to make their next event a hybrid one.
Are people visiting trade shows again?
Earlier this year, BloombergUK reported that trade shows were “tiptoeing back to life in the US” and it’s fair to say the same is true globally. Attendances are up, but down 40% on pre-pandemic levels.
We may be learning to live with Covid, but that doesn’t necessarily mean event attendees are entirely eager to put themselves in a room with several thousand peers. After all, ‘endemic’ doesn’t mean ‘over’ or ‘insignificant’. Life may be returning to normal but normal is a world where, at time of writing 2.7 million people in the UK have Covid.
What do trade show staff feel about the future of events?
Whatever the future of events post-Covid, what’s certain is there can’t be a future without a team willing to set up and run the stand. It’s important, therefore, for organisations to get the balance right between creating a welcoming trade stand and ensuring it feels safe for staff.
As the first trade shows returned after lockdown, various measures were introduced to minimise the risk of infection. One 2022 report shows 4 in 5 trade show attendees said they wanted at least some safety restrictions to remain, with hand-sanitiser the most preferred option.
Just one in six (16%) wanted anything as obtrusive as Perspex screens. It’s important to note that such options are based on attendee preference, not their effectiveness in actually protecting trade show staff or delegates.
Achieving the right balance might, therefore, look something like this:
- Keeping hand sanitizer handy
- Keeping a lid on crowds: Large scale product demonstrations or prize draws that invite a crowd to gather are likely to remain distinctly less low key than they once were. The future of events is smaller, more individual conversations.
- Keeping greetings non-physical (with friendly notices, badges and similar to let delegates know if handshakes are off the agenda)
- Reducing physical handouts (cards/brochures/flyers) in favour of scannables, using QR codes on display materials.
Is smaller and more targeted the future of trade shows after Covid?
It’s a little difficult to draw conclusions from reports produced mid-pandemic. The situation then is not like the situation now, so it might be unwise to place too much weight in findings from this report that found the future of events would be smaller and more tightly segmented.
At least it would if other data since didn’t support many of its findings. This study found that, although almost 60% of businesses were planning to exhibit at more trade shows post-Covid, 3 in 10 were planning on fewer and 1 in 10 were stopping entirely.
As long as delegates are only trickling back to trade shows, the strategy for many exhibitors seems to be to cut their cloth accordingly by:
- Carefully targeting the shows they attend
- Attending fewer shows each year
- Attending smaller shows with a more tightly defined audience, thereby reducing the cost of trade show print materials (because they don’t have as big a stand to fill) and increasing ROI because they can target attendees more effectively
Is the future of events after Covid hybrid?
When the FTI Insight report collected its data in early 2021, just 19% of people were less satisfied with virtual trade shows than in-person ones. 62% were more or much more satisfied. How things change.
It now seems clear that the popularity of virtual events expressed in that report was driven by a ‘needs must’ view. When virtual is the only option, there’s little surprise it fares relatively well. But with risk far less of a consideration than it was, views have shifted significantly.
Although focused on global events rather than trade shows specifically, a 2021 OECD webinar concluded ‘digitalisation cannot replace… in-person interaction’ in the long run.
Entirely virtual events don’t appear to be the future, but hybrid events which mix online and in-person, may well be.
Statista estimated 35% of events would be hybrid in 2022. 30% of event organisers plan to switch to hybrid for their next event. According to Bizzabo’s Event Marketing Report 2021, 97% of event marketers believe the future of exhibitions is hybrid.
That isn’t necessarily a simple choice. As Markletic found, it’s not always easy, for example, for event speakers to simultaneously engage an in-person and online audience. Almost four in ten event organisers feel a hybrid event takes more preparation. And whether you find it easy to network in a hybrid event seems to be based entirely on the person you are, the tech you have and the people around you.
The future of exhibitions post-Covid
Google ‘trade show calendar’ and take a quick trot through the results and it’s clear that the expo is alive and well. Yet for every mammoth trade show at the UK’s biggest expo venues, there’s a large contingent of smaller and often more local events, and many are supplementing a physical presence with hybrid options.
It may be that, in time, greater emphasis will once again be placed on the in-person experience. For the time being, however, smaller, less frequent and with a hybrid mix seems to be the sensible choice for businesses trying to balance increasing costs with a desire to get back ‘out there’.
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