Trade shows in the virtual age remain alive and well

More than ever, participants at trade shows are focused on specific goals. Organizers often include a trade show as part of their association meeting or convention, exhibitors are primarily focused on business and contact development, and participants seek an experience that cannot be duplicated elsewhere—particularly related to educational goals. These are some findings of a study of more than 2,500 tradeshow participants conducted by Hyunjeong “Spring” Han, of the Faculty of Management at the National Research University in Moscow, and Rohit Verma, a professor of service operations management at the Cornell School of Hotel Administration. Han and Verma conclude that successful tradeshows need to satisfy the participants’ complementary goals, in part by using social media and mobile technology for routine information exchanges or continuing contact development. The trade show itself should focus on what some called the “aha” moment—the piece of education or contact that creates a distinctive experience, making the entire trip worthwhile.

While participants appreciate a trade show in an interesting city, the location is actually several notches down the list of reasons given for choosing a particular trade show. For exhibitors, the top consideration is number of attendees, followed by registration cost and educational offerings. All point to the exhibitors’ chief goal, which is finding qualified leads. Cost is also a consideration for attendees, but educational offerings, panel discussions, and speakers rank highest for this group. New product and service demonstrations are noted by both groups as a reason to attend, although this was particularly noted by attendees in senior positions. In spite of the fact that people still seek personal contact, the respondents acknowledged that some trade shows could become completely virtual, provided the technology allows for personal contacts and demonstrations.

Han and Verma found that environmental sustainability continues to grow in importance to trade show participants. For at least six years now, shows have included a “green aisle” of environmentally focused exhibitors. The American Beverage Association (ABA) and International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) did this at InterBev 2008, for example, and since then, this program has been hugely successful, as these aisles have sold out almost immediately.


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In conclusion, Han and Verma see continued use of technology in trade shows, including QR codes, RFIDs, and other connective applications. Concern about cost is one driver of this trend, as trade show participants remain careful with budgets. That said, the current outlook based on this survey is that trade shows will continue to be a major economic force for the venues that host them.