Are Trade Shows Still Relevant?

by Traci Browne

Ghost Town

If you believe our industry statisticians you would believe trade show attendance and exhibiting is on the rise. It seems the story line is, everything is getting back to normal and face-to-face is as important as ever to marketers. But is it that simple?

Sure marketers will tell you that face-to-face is very important. CEOs and Sales Execs will tell you the same thing. But does that translate to trade shows are very important? Trade shows are a face-to-face medium but not all face-to-face mediums are trade shows. If trade shows were in fact such an important medium in the eyes of B2B marketers and the C-suite why…

  • is it one of the first departments to get cut when scaling back?
  • is it not given more than a couple hours attention in marketing degree programs?
  • is there often no significant attempt to measure ROI?

I love trade shows and I believe they have much value…just not the way we are still doing them.

There are a few exceptions but what I’m seeing at association shows are fewer and fewer people going on the show floor. Attendees are more interested in education and CEU credits than in walking the show floor. Many of the attendees sent to the show don’t have buying power…they are the influencers and the users…but don’t have final say in purchase decisions. They are there to learn, not necessarily to shop.

In the case of many shows I’ve been to this past year, everything taking place on the show floor can, for the most part, be found online. If I need to invest in a new piece of equipment I can search for vendors online, compare what they have to offer and reach out to my community for advice. What I do not need to do is spend thousands of dollars to travel across the country for three days to get the same information.

When attendees say they value the face-to-face interaction does that mean they value the show floor? Or do they value the interaction they have with their peers during conference sessions and in the hallways. Hell, they may even value the interaction they have with their vendors but do we need a show floor filled with booths to facilitate that interaction?

Better yet, exhibitor, do you really need a 40 x 60 foot island booth to facilitate that interaction? Couldn’t you do just as well with a 10 x 10 or 10 x 20?

We have this belief that attendees want to touch and see our product lines? But is this a myth or a truth? With less and less attendees packing the exhibit halls does this theory have merit? Enough for companies to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on an exhibit program? Even tens of thousands?

Again, I’m not saying do away with trade shows, I’m saying, if your show floor traffic is clearly absent, you need to re-invent your show floor. What do you think?

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Mel White November 6, 2012 at 2:49 pm

Hi Traci –

I’m sitting at my desk at 6 am reading your blog post. What a depressing start to my day. Do you have a point? Yes. Is it as grim as you describe? Probably not. What’s true is that we must continue to reinvent ourselves, as suppliers and consultants to the trade show and event industry. Our products and our worth must evolve to fit the needs of our clients. They will continue to attend and participate in trade shows, but they’re just as likely to scale back or scale down their displays. Smaller events will be more important. Interactive media will dominate.

Thanks for sparking this conversation. I hope others will share their thoughts. I’d truly enjoy having a breakfast with that group at EXHIBITOR in three months.

–Mel White

tracibrowne November 6, 2012 at 2:55 pm

Oh dear Mel, I so didn’t want to be a depressing start to someone’s day. But perhaps our industry has to hit rock bottom before we can grow. Again, I’m not saying all trade shows are irrelevant. There are great shows out there where attendance is growing on the show floor. Clearly whatever the show is doing is working for their exhibitors and attendees. (These are also shows who are embracing things like social media and adding some hybrid components to their events.) If you decide to have the breakfast at EXHIBITOR let me know…I will be there through Wednesday!

Melly June 5, 2013 at 1:24 pm

I agree with what you’re saying Traci. It’s not that trade shows have become redundant – far from it – rather, it’s a case of too many businesses failing to grow with the needs of their clients. Very interesting article – thanks for sharing!

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