What really is the future of the trade show?

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I heard a lot of talk at IAEE's Expo! Expo! about how trade shows are still a vital part of the marketing mix for most companies, how nothing has really changed—and how it really won't change—when it comes to the necessity for trade shows. But is that true, or just wishful thinking on the part of those whose livelihoods depend on expos staying alive and well for decades to come?

I go back and forth on it. I'm definitely in the "live meetings still and probably always will fulfill a vital human need for connectedness." I can't imagine live meetings going away. But trade shows as a viable marketing media? I'm not quite so strong on that, though I regularly try to convince myself that they'll continue in all their (I have to be honest here) 1950s glory, with aisles of salespeople handing out trinkets and trying to hustle up some interest in their wares from the passers-by. The booths and displays may have gotten glitzier, but the basic premise hasn't changed much for at least the 30 or so years since I first set foot in an expo hall. Yes, people love to meet in person, and to get their hands on new gadgets, and develop relationships that endure. But is the trade show hall still the most expedient place to do all that? Just asking.

There was some talk on the industry listservs about Apple pulling out of Macworld, and whether or not that meant the beginning of the end for that show in particular, and trade shows in general. Like the good people at IAEE, consensus seemed to come down on the side of trade show survival, including Macworld's. Again, reality or wishful thinking? You tell me.

And then I read this post from former Microsoft blogger and all-around tech guru Robert Scoble, about how social networks and bloggers are killing the big shows off. I'm not entirely sure I buy his argument as being relevant for the entire trade show industry (at least, not yet), but for at least some shows, he may well be right. I mean, I have no doubt that expos will continue for quite a while in their current form, just as print magazines will, for the older generations who can't imagine giving them up. But they may well become loss-leaders for other, more profitable marketing avenues, not the major dollar-generator they historically have been for associations and for-profits. And once the younger generations are calling the shots? I'm not sure what the trade show of the future will look like, but I have a feeling it won't be your father's pipe-and-drape affair we all know and have loved for so long. Or even that it will still exist in a form recognizable to us older folks.

Anyone who organizes trade shows should at least be aware that change may well be coming, and thinking hard about how to adapt their business model to the new world of marketing. Do read the comments to Scoble's post, as well as this interesting post on Confabb, for more.

I feel like this post is a little "the trade show is dead; long live the trade show," but I really don't have any answers. It just seems prudent to periodically ask the questions, especially as we usher in what in all likelihood will be a fairly tough year for all of us. I think the big winners will be those who stop trying to reinvent the trade show itself and find some other, as yet undiscovered "blue ocean" opportunity.

One thing I can't imagine changing: There will always be money in bringing buyers and sellers together. We just have to figure out how best to do it. It may well still be the traditional trade show (or print magazine). Then again, it may not.

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