What will the exhibition of the future look like? A group of industry organizations have come together to develop five potential future trade-show models through an initiative called Future Meet.

The point isn’t that the trade show and exhibit models are broken, it is to get people thinking about new ideas and ways to adapt, said Deborah Sexton, president and chief executive officer at the Professional Convention Management Association. PCMA’s Education Foundation is one of five organizations funding and developing the project. The others include the American Society of Association Executives Foundation, the International Association of Exhibitions and Events Exhibition Industry Foundation, Freeman, and Gaylord Entertainment. Insight Labs, a nonprofit think tank based in Chicago, and Manifest Digital, a Chicago-based digital marketing and research company, are also collaborating on the initiative.

Since the current exhibit and trade show model was constructed before the Internet, e-mail, Google, social media, and the expectation by many of instant gratification, there will negative consequences for the industry if significant changes are not made, the group believes. “In the original model, buyers had to wait 12, 24, or even 36 months to meet face-to-face with suppliers to seek out new products, solutions, and innovations. Those days are long gone,” now that buyers can obtain information with a few keystrokes, she said.

Future Meet began as conversations between Sexton and ASAE President John Graham about how things are changing and how they might be able to facilitate the conversation, explained Sexton. The conversation was solely focused on association conventions. Then Gaylord and Freeman became partners. Along the way, the group decided to broaden it to include trade shows, so IAEE’s Exhibition Industry Foundation joined.

The coalition believes that one size doesn’t fit all, so it has begun to craft approximately five potential models of the future exhibition/trade show. The models, currently in development, have been influenced by discussions around the country with numerous industry leaders, association and trade show organizers, and others identified through Manifest Digital. “They bring a diverse group of people together, some of whom are connected to the areas of interest and many of whom are not,” said Sexton, with feedback gathered through both online and in face-to-face settings. The group made a point to interview people with no connections to the industry at all, other than the fact that they might be potential attendees or exhibitors. “We have to broaden the scope of the conversation,” Sexton said, because the industry needs to know what’s appealing to people who don’t usually attend or exhibit.

“One of our principle challenges is to understand how technology may enhance the exhibition experience in the future,” said Steven Hacker, president, IAEE. The digital environment brings an added dimension to the attendee experience at trade shows, added John Graham, president and CEO, ASAE.

The models aren’t finalized yet, but Sexton said some of the ideas might be considered “out there”, while others won’t be. One of the concepts discussed is the hosted-buyer model, which has been very successful in Europe and is growing in the U.S. But Sexton didn’t share any information on what the five (or so) models were as they have not yet been finished. “None of them are going to be right or wrong,” said Sexton. “What they are going to do is allow people to begin to think a little differently and to incorporate elements into what they do that could help them going forward.”

Some of the concepts in the models will be discussed at PCMA’s Masters Series meeting in Washington, D.C., on October 20. The hope is to officially release the results of the project by the end of this year, possibly at IAEE’s Expo! Expo!, December 6–8 in Las Vegas, said Sexton.

Future Meet encourages feedback from industry professionals on the project and has created a Web site, Wheredoesthefuturemeet.com. There, meeting professionals can offer what they think the future of trade shows should look like, or they can read the ideas of others. There are some very creative entries on the site, with datelines from “2017” and “2018,” written by fictitious association executives who are discussing aspects of their futuristic annual meetings.