Is Trade Show Marketing Making a Comeback?

Trade shows need to continue to pivot in order to provide the best experience for attendees. Here's what to look for.

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Tired of virtual events? You’re not alone. Major trade shows and conferences are finally returning to the scene after years of disruption due to the pandemic. But while some B2B sales leaders are craving face-to-face interactions and eager for the return of in-person events, others remain hesitant.

According to stats from Display Wizard, “65% of businesses said that in-person trade shows were an invaluable part of their marketing strategy while 35% of respondents said that in-person trade shows needed to change to stay relevant.” 

The producers behind some of the world’s largest trade shows and conventions are sharing what trends are needed for attendees to make the leap from virtual back to in-person events. 

Why Attend a Trade Show?

In the United States, the B2B trade show market was worth around 15.58 billion dollars in 2019 before declining to 5.6 billion in 2020. By 2024, it’s projected to recover almost fully at over 14.5 billion. And for good reason. 

Trade shows can present a great opportunity for networking and having more face-to-face interactions with your prospective buyers, which can significantly boost your lead generation efforts. But there are plenty of other reasons why you should attend a trade show. 

To gain a better overview of the market and industry

Trade shows are a great way to see what’s new in the industry before it becomes more mainstream – giving you the upper hand over other competitors. 

To find new markets and opportunities

You can also get great inspiration for your products or services, meet people with shared interests, and expertise that might help grow business partnerships all by attending a trade show. 

To evaluate products and suppliers

At a trade show, you can receive competitive information about a wide range of products and suppliers in a short space of time, giving you a better understanding of the options available. Most times, you will be able to see these products and services in action, giving you the chance to make more informed decisions. 

The chance to follow up on leads

Trade shows are a great way to obtain leads, using the show as a way to connect with more gatekeepers who might be harder to reach. Attendees have plenty of opportunities to network during trade shows often returning home with a notebook full of new contacts and business leads, ready for sales follow-up after the event is over. 

For networking and partnerships

Trade shows allow you to build relationships and strengthen existing ones with suppliers, clients, referral sources, and associates. Whether you are representing your own company or looking to grow your network, trade shows can be a great place to meet new people who will help build up your network. 

To get questions answered by experts

Want to know more about a product or service? You can find answers to any questions on your mind there and make new connections with people who work in related fields. You can even find out about new opportunities that might not have been advertised anywhere else. 

The Newest Trend Show Trends

For trade shows to make a comeback a few things need to fall into place. For one, people need to feel safe and comfortable in the environment they are put in. For some large producers, this is easier said than done. But for some of the world’s most high-profile trade shows and conventions – they are ready and have a plan. We’ve compiled some of their best advice below. 

1. Planning with more intention
“We expect the upcoming future to be very strong for the events industry,” says Marc Herron, senior vice president of strategy at Sparks, an event production company. “We will see continued trends in hyper-personalization, connected technologies, smart storytelling, integrated virtual/live formats, a focus on creators and authentic/meaningful content, sponsorship and partnership marketing, and lastly, sustainability and more conscious spending and materiality.” 

2. Providing a better focus on the attendee experience
Other experts add that the experience will need to be put first and foremost. Attendees care about how they spend their time and the value they receive when away from their business. Finding the right mix of professional and personal connection experiences is key. They see trends that use a data-driven approach when it comes to knowing their audience, giving them the ability to design experiences that cater to them. Without a memorable attendee experience, trade shows will suffer. 

3.  Attendees should have more incentive
“Our attendees are craving the live experience and being back together to do business face-to-face,” says Liz Irving, executive vice president and head of marketing, technology, and customer experience at Clarion Events Inc, a trade show management company. “I think we’ll continue to see a focus on the quality of our attending audience, and more focus on ensuring our events create connections opportunities through defined meeting programs, networking and the serendipitous experiences.” Trade shows, big and small, must be able to zero in on the human why behind their events for them to show up in real life. 

4. Trade shows must create a fear of missing out
Lance Fensterman, the president of ReedPop, a division of Reed Exhibitions that focuses on pop culture shows like New York Comic Con—says “I don’t think our fans and brands will ever take community for granted again. “Everyone is happy to bust through that screen and see real people again.” He predicts that creating “safe, convenient, high-quality events” and “a healthy dose of FOMO-inducing moments” will be the industry’s focus moving forward. 

5. Smaller, niched trade shows may become the norm
Brendan Brown, vice president of strategy for event production company George P. Johnson Experience Marketing, believes that many trade shows will return smaller and more focused than in previous years. “Specificity is a survival strategy has the upside potential of establishing deeper connections and communities, and the potential to deliver more relevant experiences without the waste,” he points out. “Downsized trade shows will come in many forms—some will turn toward creating more exclusive, tiered offerings, while others will take their shows on the road for increasingly distributed and localized versions and communities.”

6. Producers will be testing what works and what doesn’t
Every show is a test, trying out what works and what doesn’t work for attendees. Producers must continue to be open and adaptable about their processes. Organizers, producers, and experience designers have had to adapt to all sorts of new conditions and constraints,” says Brown. “As trade shows re-emerge, finding an ideal ‘fit’ within this new landscape will require continued experimentation across a range of dimensions. As always, empathy and creativity are essential factors, but trial and error will be what sets many apart in the long run. The playing field hasn’t just been leveled—it’s leveled up.”

7. Plans moving forward must be more sustainable
“Another key trend will be sustainability,” argues Bob Priest-Heck, CEO and board member at trade show & exhibit company, Freeman. “People have increased their focus on environmental impacts and our own Freeman research shows that 62% of people say it’s now more important than before the pandemic that companies behave in a more sustainable and eco-friendly way.”

8. Covid isn’t going to just disappear, so planners must be adaptable
“COVID is not going away,” points out Herron. “We are learning to live with it. Mandatory vaccination and testing are keeping the event industry moving forward and opening up. Most brands, clients, agencies, and show organizers realize the importance of complying with CDC guidelines and protecting attendees as best they can. This will continue for some time.”

Irving, however, does note that the impacts of COVID-19 are starting to slow. “I believe we will be moving further away from the focus being on ‘running a safe event’ to really be more about the importance for all communities to get back to live events,” she predicts. “I do believe COVID has taught us to be smarter, more dynamic organizers, and we now have more tools in our toolkit to put into play.”

9. Digital options should still be present
Fensterman predicts that hybrid events are here to stay. “We will always include digital elements in everything we build. Many of our events have historically sold out—and never again will a ReedPop show sell out,” he says. “You may not be able to get in the building, but you will now always have an option for robust and meaningful digital participation.” He adds, “Greater quantifiable ROI will be an expectation. Customers have gotten used to the online world where everything is measurable, and the analog part of our business needs to catch up in that regard.”

Trade shows are still a great way to network and find new opportunities. Producers must proceed to pivot in order to keep attendees happy and showing up in person. If this can be accomplished, trade shows will continue to rebound.

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