Economic and Other Hard Realities
And yet, technology hasn’t shored up the exhibition industry from an economic perspective. According to a report published in 2019 by the Global Association of the Exhibition Industry, UFI, exhibitors and visitors combined spent around $137 billion every year on exhibitions.
That was pre-pandemic. Financially, on average, virtual events are small (49 percent generate gross revenues of less than $250,000) and yield a fraction of the gross revenues of physical events, according to “Anatomy of Virtual Events and Financial Outcomes,” a report published in January by the Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR).
Virtual trade shows present economic challenges for both associations, which have lost significant revenues the in-person exhibit hall generated, and for exhibitors, who struggle to replicate the lead generation and deal-making that takes place on the physical show floor.
Despite these difficulties, organizers have forged ahead. The shift to digital for in-person exhibitions forced to cancel in 2020 grew from 69 percent in April to 81 percent in June, according to a CEIR survey. Most notable is the increase in fully virtual trade shows during those few short months between the two surveys — from 15 percent to 41 percent. At the same time, despite Zoom fatigue, attendees and members working from home still seem to have an appetite for virtual events. In September, 59 percent of attendees reported they would be likely to sign up to attend an online trade event, up two points from June, according to “COVID-19 And How It’s Changing the Event Industry,” a white paper published by Reed Exhibitions. The percentage of attendees who think they can still carry out the majority of their event objectives online, Reed’s research found, is also increasing, up from 52 percent in June to 57 percent in September.
It’s up to trade-show organizers to keep that spark alive. Convene spoke with organizers — and suppliers and tech experts — about the challenges of producing online trade shows in 2020 and what they envision for 2021. As more organizations look to incorporate virtual exhibits into their strategies to make up for lost revenues, what are the most innovative and practical approaches? How are groups getting attendees to engage and to create online environments that are interactive? How are shows pricing virtual booth space and involving sponsors in a meaningful way? And in the end, will the organization be able to replace the revenue the in- person exhibit hall generated? Here’s what we learned.
The all-virtual PACK EXPO Connects, which had 2,600 live exhibitor demos planned demos planned for the November event, overcame initial hiccups the event’s first day to be able to share those demos. The experience continues on the event site until March 31.
Overcoming Tech Issues
The good news: “The technology is becoming more affordable, more robust, and it’s working,” said Giberti, who spent 18 years of his career working for Reed Exhibitions and now consults and invests with media, event, and technology entrepreneurs. “Event organizers don’t need to build it from scratch or experiment with crappy startups anymore.”
Despite the hundreds of off-the-shelf event platforms available, however, the technology is not perfect. Many organizers report technical issues, bandwidth problems, and overload of software systems during their online events.
Case in point: PACK EXPO Connects, an all-virtual event that replaced the in-person trade show scheduled for Chicago’s McCormick Place in 2020, which is organized by PMMI, the association for packaging and processing technologies. When digital PACK EXPO Connects launched on Nov. 9, the system — accommodating nearly 18,000 attendees and more than 700 exhibitors — crashed on the first day within 15 minutes of opening the exhibitor platform to attendees.
“We’re a machinery show, so being able to show the equipment was so important,” said Laura Thompson, PMMI’s vice president, trade shows. As part of an exhibitor package, PMMI deployed and sold live demos — “we had 2,600 live demos,” she said, “within the platform scheduled in a one-week period of time.”
When the system didn’t come back online, show management resorted to Plan B. “Our backup plan was either the exhibitors could upload pre-recorded videos or they could use their own platform, like Zoom or Teams,” Thompson said. “We emailed and then personally called 500-plus exhibitors because time was of the essence. We wanted to make sure people didn’t miss that opportunity.”
Thompson said she was “impressed with our exhibitors and how quickly they were able to switch and accommodate the changes. We were still able to have demos, but not in the platform we had offered.”
The National Electrical Contractors Association worked with vFairs and Gatherly to produce its virtual trade show.
Bringing in Experiences
In June 2020 when the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) realized they had no choice but to cancel the in-person portion of NECA 2020 Chicago, scheduled for October, the exhibit floor was already 85-percent sold for McCormick Place. The team offered those exhibitors who had already paid four options: transfer the balance to a virtual convention and trade show, receive a refund, apply it to sponsorship, or transfer the balance to NECA 2021 Nashville, to be held in early October.
“Typically, the show attracts 300 companies exhibiting in the trade show,” said Susan McCart, president, HFI Event Services, which handles exhibit and sponsorship sales for NECA. “We were pleased with 94 companies that decided to join us for first-ever NECA 2020 LIVE.”
From Oct. 6–8, NECA 2020 LIVE offered 84 education sessions and product demos from 22 companies. NECA worked with virtual event software company vFairs and online event platform Gatherly to produce the digital event.
NECA’s in-person attendance is usually around 8,000–10,000 and the digital event attracted 5,104 live participants — of which 1,200 were first-timers working in the electrical construction industry. NECA had been trying to attract a broader audience to its annual convention for years, so that number was significant. “We have always wanted to dig deeper within electrical firms and bring in not only CEOs and owners, but also project managers, estimators, and accountants,” said Beth Ellis, NECA’s executive director of convention and meetings. “We were able to do that by bringing the price point down and eliminating travel costs.”
NECA charged members $200 for registration and charged non-members $500, compared with in-person fees of $1,200 for members and $1,500 for non-members.
“When we began planning NECA 2020 LIVE, we had great ambitions, but you never quite know how attendees are going to respond to such a massive change,” Ellis said. “We were absolutely floored by the response, with thousands of NECA members and other electrical industry figures all coming together and using our platform to engage. We could not be more thrilled to see this success and hear how great the experience was both for loyal NECA convention attendees, and those who had never been able to travel before.”
While NECA had only a fraction of the attendance and exhibitors they host in person, they did have some exhibitor and attendee stats worth celebrating: 67,330 booth visits and 34,829 session views for a total engagement of 102,159 clicks (as of Dec. 18).
To encourage attendee engagement, NECA offered demos, education theaters, chat functionality — and weaved in elements from the physical event. For example, NECA typically offers lunch and entertainment on the show floor. On the first day, supply-chain-management company Graybar sponsored a chocolate and bourbon demo, and NECA offered prizes that could be redeemed only by visiting each sponsor’s booth. On day two, the lunch hour featured a cooking demonstration by Washington, D.C.–area chef George Rodrigues, who whipped up a batch of chili from the recipe that led to his win on Food Network’s “Beat Bobby Flay.” On day 3, to promote NECA 2021 in Nashville, country music singer Ryan Jewel sang and took requests, and NECA gave away a pair of cowboy boots.
“We wanted to bring in just everything that our members were accustomed to experiencing in person,” Ellis said. “We brought in entertainment, education, networking, and exhibits. People’s minds were blown.” Leading up to the event, NECA worked with local chapters to present the platform and offer tips on enhancing the user experience — a step that can be vital to a virtual trade-show event’s success (see “Don’t Skimp on the Prep Work” at the end of this story).
NECA also hosted online evening activities. The one-and-a-half-hour-long opening reception featured the Milwaukee Tool Shed Band, one of the show’s largest exhibitors, with two pre-recorded sets. Dueling pianos were a highlight of the second evening, and Chicago’s Second City provided the final night’s entertainment.
During the receptions, NECA used Gatherly’s networking feature to promote interaction. “If you were walking around, [your avatar] could come and grab [my avatar],” Ellis said. “Then your group could get on an elevator and go to different levels. We had 15 different levels with caricatures, bingo, trivia, and more. We also had a private room where you could go and chat. You could even lock the room if you wanted to have a private party or conversation.”
NECA 2020 LIVE offered 84 education sessions and product demos from 22 companies. The virtual event met the association’s longtime objective of attracting a new audience to its trade show with 1,200 first-time attendees.
Changing the Exhibitor’s Mindset
Show organizers are finding that virtual trade shows require exhibitors to shift their thinking. “First and foremost,” Freeman’s Shah told Convene, organizers need to “help exhibitors understand they need to show up differently, change their mindset, and reset expectations. It’s not about replicating your in-person experience online. What we’re learning from the data we’re collecting is that online is all about opening doors, broadening the sales funnel, and bringing in new people. It’s about getting a broader audience familiar with your products and services.”
Like an in-person trade show, virtual attendees want education and networking in addition to the opportunity to view new products and services. In fact, 62 percent of online attendees report they come for content and learning, according to research by Freeman. “Content and learning is the No. 1 attendee driver for participation in virtual,” Shah said. So the question then becomes, she said, “How do you bake in that layer from an exhibitor point of view?”
SINGEx CEO Aloysius Arlando, a Web Summit session co-panelist with Witt, said that when it comes to a conference versus a trade show, “the story is totally different. In a conference, of course, you can go much more virtual because you have more content to deliver and it’s much easier to do that virtually. The more content you have in an exhibition,” he added, “the easier it gets.” Similarly, Shah said, “The more exhibitors can be integrated into the overall programming, the more successful they will be.” For exhibitors, that means “hands down, anything with sponsored content,” she said. “Our data reveals exhibitors have greater success with lunch and learns, small group learning sessions, and product demos. Sponsored content typically drives longer engagement times than a visit to an exhibitor listing.” She said sponsoring a lunch and learn at a health-care event can cost as much as $20,000.
NECA sold out all 24 30-minute education timeslots it had created exclusively for exhibitors, McCart said. “We sold 27 five-minute commercials that were played in between the education sessions, and these also all sold out.”
“Obviously, the goal is to get people down to the bottom of the sales funnel, but that’s not where online lives,” Shah said. “First, we have to recognize that coming to online doesn’t mean you’re going to close deals. It’s about nurturing relationships. It is about brand awareness. It is about bringing the most innovative content that is not available anywhere else. It’s only available at this event, at this moment in time.”
Power Networking Conference offered tiered pricing with customized options for exhibitors based on their goals and objectives. ‘Digital levels the playing field and you shouldn’t fight it,’ said the event’s organizer, Kara Dao.
Engagement Takes a Different Form
“Engagement takes a lot of work — whether you are in person or online,” said Skip Cox, SVP, research and measurement, Freeman. “If you’re willing to put in the time in advance, you can create engagement.”
Chance meetups, however, are far less likely to occur online than in-person. “Attendees are always one click away from engaging — and disengaging,” said Kara Dao, CEM, senior director, client engagement and operations for Washington, D.C.–based third-party event producer JDC Events. In 2020, Dao worked on PowerNetworking Conference, an event for black entrepreneurs, and with the International Association of Assessing Officers (IAAO), to produce virtual events with exhibits to replace their in-person events. Both events used virtual event platform Eventfinity and its virtual breakout room feature vMeet to step up engagement.
The vMeet feature was “like walking about with a meeting room in your backpack,” Dao said. “Attendees and exhibitors can invite each other to chat and can create a meeting room anytime with one click.” JDC used push notifications during the virtual events to guide the attendee journey, sending reminders to promote interaction with exhibitors or upcoming events on their schedules — but no more often than every 30 minutes.
Dao also built exclusive exhibit hours into the agenda. IAAO featured a business-card exchange with a one-click autofill form for attendees to enter into a drawing for a tablet computer. “Attendees visited every booth,” she said. “Exhibitors offered entertainment, like caricatures, chef demos, mixology, karaoke, DJs, and prizes.”
While prizes and gamification can drive traffic, Shah said there are caveats. “Gamification can be good for brand aware- ness but make sure it aligns with your exhibitors’ goals and objectives,” she said. “It requires thoughtful planning and execution to drive results that are aligned with goals. Are you driving the right person to the booth? Gamification doesn’t necessarily drive longer engagement so there’s a trade-off.”
The International Association of Assessing Officers used virtual event platform Eventfinity’s breakout room feature vMeet at its event.
When the International Association of Exhibitions and Events (IAEE) pivoted from hybrid to all-virtual for its Annual Meeting and Expo!Expo! in December, Vice President of Exhibitions and Events Scott Craighead, CEM, and his team selected virtual event tech company Swapcard after an extensive RFP process for platforms that make connections. “One week before the event, hundreds of people were already active on the site and making connections,” he said. “Exhibitors were asking for appointments. They’ve got the attendee demographics, and there’s matchmaking AI in the platform that makes it easier for the exhibitors to navigate towards their prospects or customers with whom they want to connect.” IAEE opted to hold designated show hours over the course of two days, the same schedule as the in- person event.
In Shah’s experience, “one-on-one meetings are struggling. We’re just not seeing the numbers we would like to see.” One successful approach, she said, was taken by ECEF (Exhibition & Convention Executives Forum), held online in November: Tech demos had dedicated office hours with exhibitors available to answer questions. “Those tend to be way more successful than me scheduling a time to follow up with you later,” she said. “That’s just not happening.”
Making it seamless and easy for attendees and exhibitors to interact is key. “I think that’s where we are now,” Arlando said in his session. “It’s not to say that physical is good and digital is bad, but how actually do we weave in these different engagement opportunities and therefore bring about very high-value moments of interaction?”
ECEF (Exhibition & Convention Executives Forum) opened its event platform early for networking and invited attendees to “View intro videos of dozens of industry leaders & make appointments” with them during the conference.
One of the benefits of digital events is the year-round engagement opportunities it offers as opposed to one-off physical events. “As an event organizer, you need to provide leads to your exhibitors and facilitate those connections with buyers,” Giberti said. “If you can use technology all year long and provide your customers with leads as a subscription service, there are opportunities, which means instead of selling a trade show, you’re going to be selling a year-long membership engagement. We’re moving from three or four days to 365 mobile, and associations, in particular, could and should capitalize on that opportunity. Associations have a strategic advantage because of their relationship with members and because of the data they could and should collect. The way associations can put those buyers and sellers together from a different angle … that is pretty interesting. It is very easy to say, but it’s very difficult to execute.”
IAEE will be testing the concept of extended engagement this year. “We’re going to roll out a year-round marketplace called ‘Market Hub,’” Craighead said. “That will launch in February with Swapcard, and it’ll be a longer-term solution, replacing our existing buyers guide. It will be a year-round buyer/seller environment. It’s certainly something positive that’s come out of this crisis. We’ve needed to do this for a long time.”
The future of the exhibition industry is hybrid, said Dale Parmenter, CEO of U.K.-based communications company drpg, during in his PCMA Convening Leaders 2021 presentation in January. Future in-person exhibitions will have a smaller audience and a large online audience, and “we clearly can’t just stick a camera in an exhibition and hope the people at home are going to be engaged,” Parmenter said. “They’re going to have to have something different.” He suggested taking the same kind of backstage approach that viewers see on sporting events, where a host or facilitator takes the online audience around for interviews with exhibitors and others on the show floor.
Giberti predicted that “in the next five or 10 years, we’re going to see more associations building their own platforms or potentially partnering with existing B2B marketplaces. But it’s not going to happen in six months. It’s going to take a long period of time.”
His advice: “Think like a startup. You will need to try, fail, fix it, pivot a little bit, and do it again. There is no magic trick.”