The Push to Digital Gave Trade Shows a New Business Model

No matter what their customer base, every trade show should now be based on creating valuable content, argues trade-show expert Francis Friedman.

Author: Francis Friedman       

trade shows

The new business model for trade shows is producing highly valuable, branded, multi-media content.

Convene asked individuals from inside and outside the business events industry to talk about behaviors and other changes brought on by the pandemic that are lasting, and in particular, to share which ones they think are likely to transform events. We offer their insights and opinions on this page and in the rest of our July-August CMP Series, What Will Stick?

One lasting effect [of the pandemic] is that customers learned they can do business without us. Also, many competitive businesses that formerly were adjacent to ours (e.g., online education) moved into our online competitive space during COVID and now realize they can use off-the-shelf software to produce events and compete for our traditional audiences.

Francis Friedman

Francis Friedman

We have been evolving over the past few years towards — and now are fully shifted to be in — the content business. In the COVID pivot, we consciously recognized we were using content to maintain customer connection. Our business model today is not heads in beds or freight on a floor. Our business model today is producing highly valuable, branded, multi-media content.

What I am concerned about for the industry is what I am calling “First-Year Euphoria” and the need for organizers to understand now that they must really step up and create over-the-top events in Year 1. Everyone will be excited and engaged in Year 1 because events have been closed for 18 months. However, after experiencing Year 1 events, people will start to make more critical decisions about exhibiting or attending in Year 2 as they evaluate costs and other digital alternatives to reach their customers. Without a highly compelling Year 1 experience, they may decide to reduce or decline participation in Year 2. I fear a decline in Year 2 will then set the tone for the following years as the industry gets a reputation as not being a must-have tool in the B2B omnichannel marketing mix.

By the second half of 2022, digital product offerings will be more robust and competitive for segments of the business that are traditionally part of the trade-show and event organizer on-site products. Marketing budgets for digital alternatives will increase. The industry challenge in Year 2 will be related to value delivery, media format, engagement, and what it costs to get high-quality/ measurable results from the investment made in an event — no matter whether the format is live, digital, or hybrid.

I believe that if Year 1 is a fantastic experience, and delivers great results/value, exhibitors and attendees will be more predisposed to return to events in Year 2, which will influence a positive industry perception going forward.

Francis Friedman is president of Time & Place Strategies, a trade-show consultant, and author of the ebook “The Modern Digital Tradeshow.”