How will digital transform trade shows?

Photo: @RLTheis via Twenty20
Jul 20, 2020
Tom Ryan

The National Retail Federation (NRF) and Shoptalk are among the many organizations that have seemingly recreated their trade shows overnight as virtual events.

NRF is moving its in-person 2021 Big Show in New York City to early June and instead hosting a virtual event on January 12-14, 19 and 21-22.

The January event promises “robust content combined with a digital exposition,” but offered no further details. This week, from July 20 to 22, NRF will host NRF NXT ALL ACCESS, a free virtual version of its digital retailing conference that used to be called The event’s landing page promises “nine keynote and case study sessions, a virtual Expo with the latest tech solutions and numerous ways to connect with peers and partners through our online platform.”

In mid-June, Shoptalk cancelled its September in-person event in Las Vegas to launch Shoptalk’s Retail Meetup, an online-only event in October that marks a shift away from speaker presentations.

Aided by proprietary technology, workflows, scheduling algorithms and integrated interactive video capabilities, attendees will be able to participate in up to 36 mostly 15-minute one-to-one and group video meetings and conversations as well as gain unlimited post-event introductions for unscheduled meetings. With a 4 hour and 15 minute session each day, the event promises access to more than 20,000 virtual meetings in a total running time of less than 13 hours.

Numerous other experimental approaches are being launched.

Informa is replacing its in-person shows, including MAGIC, Project and Coterie, with an online program running throughout September and October. The company said in a statement, “With a full eight-week run time, retail buyers will be able to leisurely explore a full library of shoppable editorials and engaging educational content, from tastemaker-curated roundups and retail discovery sessions to timely industry insights.”

In-person events are expected to fully return once restrictions on large gatherings and travel ends, but hybrid online/digital approaches are expected to continue.

“The event industry is 10 years behind the retail industry in terms of digitization,” Anil Aggarwal, Shoptalk’s founder, told Retail Leader. “The future for events will be omnichannel as the retail industry knows well.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Which parts of the traditional trade show (i.e., discovery, one-on-one engagement, networking, educational content) may benefit from a greater online component? What will be clearly missing from digital events?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"Do I think digital will transform trade shows? Nope. It will in the short term because it’s all we have right now. "
"The transition of trade shows to digital is long overdue. Much like the shift of retail to online, now that the door has opened it will stay open."
"Discovery and educational content are two parts of traditional trade shows that could have a wider audience online."

Join the Discussion!

18 Comments on "How will digital transform trade shows?"

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Bob Amster

It makes sense that future conferences and shows will be a hybrid of in-person and virtual formats. There are inefficiencies about the in-person shows and attendees cannot always make the best use of their time away from their (former) office. Some of that will be rectified with a hybrid format. But some people will prefer the personal touch and the ability to renew personal friendships. Don’t discount in-person conferences yet.

Suresh Chaganti

Moving online has been out of necessity. Many events that otherwise were charging several hundred dollars went free. There is tremendous value for those seeking it. But there are significant challenges too — dilution of attention and lack of opportunities to have impromptu conversations.

But this delivery model does open up good revenue model once travel restrictions are lifted. $1,000 for in-person and $100 for online ticket with immersive VR experience is pretty good value for either group.

Ryan Grogman

Opening up the trade show content to online viewers who may have been unable to afford the time or budget in the past to attend in person will significantly broaden the potential audience. I’m impressed with the innovative ways in which the larger trade shows are trying to support networking via their digital approaches, but it’s simply too difficult to digitally replicate the informal, one-on-one feel of networking that takes place in person at these events.

I feel like discovery and educational content will be the primary beneficiaries in the short-term, and hopefully, exhibitors will show equal innovation in providing a virtual feel to their solutions and services, which would typically dominate the trade show floors.

Shep Hyken
There are some great companies providing amazing digital solutions to trade shows. The experience of walking the trade show floor to check out the “latest and greatest,” and talk to smart sales people, connect with old friends and make new … these are all part of the trade show experience. The new technologies are able to provide almost a 3-D feel to an online experience. They can provide video interaction (similar to Zoom video calls) so customers can connect. There is a big advantage in that the trade show floor can have extended hours, and as the article shares, extended days (to weeks and even months). What will be missing is the networking and ability to grab a cup of coffee with someone. Virtual coffee meetings are nice, but we all still crave interaction with others. This is where relationships are made and deals are sealed. We’ll be back to live shows soon enough, but don’t think these digital solutions will go away when that happens. This new way of attending a trade show, if… Read more »
Jeff Weidauer

The transition of trade shows to digital is long overdue. Much like the shift of retail to online, now that the door has opened it will stay open. The focus will be on a smaller but more engaged audience — targeted vs. mass. One-to-one engagement was always the goal — digital will make reaching the right person more efficient.

Ralph Jacobson

Depending upon the format of the virtual event (e.g., networking areas, exhibit booths, etc.) there will be more or less opportunity for traditional engagement, of course. I have a couple big events this week with those components, so let’s see if learnings over the past few months will help bridge the physical/digital world gaps. I am really concerned about the future as organizations are already stating they are not participating in face-to-face events at least through June 2021.

Georganne Bender

I have presented at, and have been an attendee at several virtual conferences. This week my company will exhibit at Action In Retail. Some virtual events have more bells and whistles than others, but the content is strong. Still, watching videos all day without live interaction with others is tough.

Do I think digital will transform trade shows? Nope. It will in the short term because it’s all we have right now. Certainly some of the technology will continue to be used after the pandemic, but for the most part I believe trade shows will go back to pre COVID-19 times. Events will be smarter and safer but in-person trade shows will prevail.

Brandon Rael

Trade shows, including the annual NRF Big Show in NYC, were already reaching their capacity, and with ticket prices skyrocketing, were becoming unaffordable or accessible for non-retailers. If anything, the amount of digital content, webinars, podcasts as well as trade show presentations have been on the rise since the pandemic emerged.

With the increased accessibility and affordability of digital-first trade shows, the major event leaders will now have a platform to extend their reach beyond the physical confines of the Javits Center and other popular event locations. The most significant impacts of not having in-person trade shows are economic, especially with the travel, hotel, and hospitality impacts of canceled events.

What is also lost are the spontaneous meetups with old friends and colleagues on the expo floor, the after-parties and other networking events. Yet, we must be adaptive and embrace this new normal until it is safe for all of us to reunite.

Stephen Rector

A hybrid approach will be the norm going forward when it comes to trade shows. Parts of that experience should have been digital for a long time now. What you don’t get through the digital experience is serendipity — where you are standing in line for a coffee and make a connection you would have never made if you weren’t there at that time. Those types of connections can turn into possible business deals and life-long relationships, which is hard to replicate in a virtual world.

Harley Feldman

Discovery and educational content are two parts of traditional trade shows that could have a wider audience online. Networking is harder since it would not be spontaneous, but done properly could broaden the ability for people to meet. One-on-one engagement can be effective online once the connection is made offline. Missing from digital events is the socialization aspect when people meet face-to-face. Digital socialization just is not the same as meeting in person.

Gene Detroyer

I agree with most of my colleagues that there are some trade show activities that can’t be replaced digitally. They have listed them well. The personal contact is priceless.

I have been on both sides, vendor and buyer, over the years. The biggest and best deals I have ever made are always after the floor closes and you go out for drinks or dinner or go to a suite, with a buyer or seller. I just can’t imagine that getting done online.

Rachelle King

Trade show learning and education may benefit from more online activity. Despite best efforts, it’s never easy to absorb as much as you like sitting in those presentations (larger or small). However, viewing the presentation online, likely from your own desk, you can control the environment and likely focus more on the content.

This digital format may also inspire more questions and engagement from attendees who may not be as comfortable chiming in with larger, unfamiliar groups.

One key downside of virtual trade shows is 1-1 networking will be diminished. Many virtual shows make good efforts to facilitate online networking, but networking and social engagements at trade shows are often fueled by the energy and live experience in the moment. That’s a tough act to follow online.

Richard Hernandez

Those always wanting to go to trade shows but never could due to budget restraints, etc are now able to go to virtual shows and still network and engage. As noted in other comments, COVID-19 facilitated the change probably faster than it might have taken to change/add a virtual format.

Steve Montgomery

No. Trade shows are about two things: visiting the booths — seeing, touching, and talking about the products being displayed — and networking. Neither can truly be done via a virtual trade show.

Brian Numainville

Out of necessity, many shows have moved online in the current environment. This has resulted in lots of experimentation and trialing new ways of conducting these shows and the related educational sessions. I think there will be much learning of what works and what doesn’t as a result of this time period, and the next normal will combine those elements together in a hybrid approach. For some, it will be back to the trade show floor, but for others it might be attending (or presenting) education sessions remotely. It doesn’t have to be one way or the other — let’s take the best of both worlds!

Liz Adamson

Just this weekend I attended a conference virtually, and while the presentations were still great, web conferences will never fully replace the connection made at in person events.

Patricia Vekich Waldron

Everyone goes to events for news and networking. In addition, vendors (who largely fund trade shows) want to generate new clients and expand existing relationships. I’m convinced that new models for trade show relationships are coming in the future.

Carlos Arambula

The ability to engage and foster relationships beyond the immediate tasks-at-hand will be eliminated, however, it might open the opportunity to other yet unknown beneficial variables.

"Do I think digital will transform trade shows? Nope. It will in the short term because it’s all we have right now. "
"The transition of trade shows to digital is long overdue. Much like the shift of retail to online, now that the door has opened it will stay open."
"Discovery and educational content are two parts of traditional trade shows that could have a wider audience online."

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