Trade fairs and live events are making a comeback

Live, virtual or hybrid? What does the future of successful trade fairs look like post-pandemic?

When the world shut down in 2020 at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, no one expected stay-at-home orders or the pause on in-person events to last as long as they did. The way we think about live events has radically shifted since February 2020 and navigating the new face of in-person gatherings is going to require an updated approach from event organizers and attendees.

With vaccination rates fluctuating wildly across the globe, some countries have seen live events return faster than others. Asia and the United States have already started hosting trade fairs, while Europe is still (for now) moving towards “business as usual” at a slightly slower pace. For those countries that have started hosting live trade fairs already, the turnout seems to indicate that many people are ready to put the pandemic behind them. Auto Shanghai 2021, one of the world’s largest auto shows and the first one to be held after the pandemic, took place with in-person attendance from April 21-28, 2021. According to the organizers, the event attracted about 810,000 visitors and around 1,000 exhibitors. To align with COVID-19 enhanced safety measures, event tickets were electronic, and all participants underwent temperature checks in addition to being asked to submit negative COVID-19 nucleic acid test results within seven days of attendance.

Nissan @ Auto Shanghai 2021

Meanwhile in June, Las Vegas welcomed the return of World of Concrete, the first major trade show in the city since the pandemic hit. The concrete and masonry construction fair capped attendance at 80% capacity in all shared spaces, a decision that was made by the trade show itself (the city lifted pandemic restrictions on June 1). The tens of thousands of visitors could explore 650 exhibitors that were set up in aisles spaced a minimum of 15 feet apart. Event registration and food/beverage ordering was completely virtual – eliminating queuing in person – and the event badge itself was a digital QR code that facilitated scanning badges upon entry. Masks were recommended but not required.

A combination of online and in-person activities

If these events are any indication of what’s to come, we can expect a slow and steady return of large events, many of which will look a bit different than what we knew pre-pandemic. We all know there is no replacement for a powerful in-person experience, but during the global health crisis, many events and trade shows shifted to virtual-only gatherings instead of cancelling entirely, and as we begin to reopen, the winning approach seems to be a combination of online and in-person activities: a hybrid event model.

The rise of hybrid events

The World of Concrete fair is just one case in point of a traditionally in-person-only event embracing the possibilities of a new, hybrid format. This year’s fair has been set up as two events: the in-person fair, which took place early June, and the Virtual Edition, which will take place late August. The virtual event promises education, virtual meetups, and opportunities for networking, all from the comfort of a home or office, an interesting hybrid approach to what large scale live events and trade shows could look like moving forwards.

So why are hybrid events predicted to become a mainstay in the trade fair industry?

A hybrid event combines both in-person and online activities to address many of the concerns that come with hosting large events in our post-pandemic world. From an attendee perspective, hybrid formats allow in-person activations for those who are ready to face a crowd, while online options create engagement opportunities for those who either cannot (because of travel restrictions, quarantine, or vaccine requirements) or will not (because of fear or uncertainty) attend in person.

For organizers and exhibitors, adding a hybrid component to an in-person event expands the event’s reach to a greater number of people, both because of possible capacity limits on-site and “travel-to-location” limitations; every virtual event can reach an international audience, with no audience caps! Hybrid events also enable event organizers to offer new or additional benefits to exhibitors and sponsors, leave a smaller carbon footprint, and can be a relatively small budget addition that has the potential to expand the overall reach of an event exponentially.

Physical components

While many people are experiencing what has been dubbed “Zoom Fatigue”, there are ways to expand the limits of what a virtual event experience can be. In addition to live streamed programming – like panels, talks, or exhibitor demonstrations – a rising trend has been the creation of activity kits or gift boxes that are mailed to (or picked up by) participants in advance of the event. Sometimes the simple fact of having something physical to accompany the virtual experience can make people feel more connected and involved. Other trade shows have launched dedicated digital platforms for trade show registration, access to online events, and networking, going so far as to use artificial intelligence to facilitate virtual matchmaking between buyers and exhibitors. Digital platforms like these give buyers an opportunity to research exhibitors in advance, while giving exhibitors an easy way to tell their story and follow up with leads after the event.

Use of technology

But the use of technology certainly doesn’t stop there. Even with the return to in-person gatherings, technology and software to assist with safer event planning and execution has come a long way over the past year as organizers scrambled to quickly create virtual offerings during the pandemic. Booking attendee “time slots” to limit the flow of visitors has become widely accepted, touchless ticketing experiences are practically expected, and QR codes have gone completely mainstream, with the added bonus of acting as automatically generated, real time capacity trackers when used in conjunction with event entry or check in.

At the end of the day, hybrid events are likely here to stay, and it’s safe to assume hybrid event models will be adopted, and very possibly expected, for large trade fairs moving forwards.

Moving beyond a one-off experience: approaching event marketing as an omnichannel campaign

In addition to integrating hybrid components into the traditional trade show experience, event organizers and marketers should carefully consider the options of a longer term and multichannel approach to event-centric communication. Every event has the potential to become an entire marketing campaign that goes well beyond the limited time period of the trade fair itself.

4B at Swissbau 2020

MCH Global and Expomobilia brought this concept to life when designing the Swissbau 2020 event stand for 4B, a Swiss company specialized in windows and facades. In addition to developing a beautiful, functional, and coherent stand concept, the agencies also developed a detailed visitor journey. All aspects of the communication plan followed the common thread of the specially developed brand slogan, “Everything in sight,” and, building off the classic conversion funnel, individual touch points were further defined for both of the main target groups (B2B/architects and B2C/homeowners). All phases of the consumer journey were mapped out and integrated in the marketing campaign, including “before the fair,” “during the fair,” the stand itself, and the “after the fair” phase. During the trade fair week, 4B experienced record high impressions on their social media channels and counted some 2,500 visitor conversions at their stand, resulting in a 51% above average lead growth compared to the previous year.

This type of big picture thinking expands the lifecycle of event marketing campaigns and gives event organizers an opportunity to connect with participants at multiple stages in the consumer journey. And as we return to in-person events, many of which will likely include a hybrid component, trade fair participants and attendees will come to expect a more engaging, long term, and omnichannel experience.

Ultimately, the goal is to create a positive, immersive, and memorable experience on all channels around trade fairs.

We believe embracing these new methodologies, technologies, and ways of thinking are the golden ticket to a successful trade show of the future.

Additional resources

The Audience Agency, a UK cultural sector support organization has launched their Cultural Participation Monitor, a year-long program of research into representative samples of the UK population, to identify their cultural attendance, attitude, participation, and online consumption before, during, and beyond COVID-19.

Online ticketing platform Eventbrite publishes a regular Events Industry Report in response to rapidly changing regulations around in-person events. The report is updated and released every two weeks to help keep event professionals informed about the most novel and noteworthy event reopening news throughout the United States (with some international updates as well).

Hospitality Net is a membership organization and online resource for the hospitality industry that features hospitality and hotel news, market reports, columns, staff movements, industry events, jobs, suppliers and industry links. They recently published „Five Ways to Prepare For The Return Of Meetings And Events” written by Chris Bowen, the Senior VP Managing Director or CWT Meetings & Events.