Why the Sustainability of the Trade-Show Business Model is in Question

Author: Dave Lutz, CMP       

In the February 2018 issue of Convene, I explored five realities of today’s B2B buyer and how those insights can be applied to evolve the traditional expo. The most glaring reality that I pointed out then — that three out of four B2B buyers conduct the majority of their research before talking to a salesperson — remains a major issue today.

Add to that fact the high cost of purchasing, setting up, and staffing an exhibit booth and then sprinkle in how digital marketing channels have grown more sophisticated, and it’s easy to see how our exposition marketplaces may very well be on the road to becoming the next Sears.

While there are a number of disruptive forces that will impact the future of trade shows, the biggest risk has to do with how much buyers and sellers will trust the environments we create.

Researcher Rachel Botsman provides compelling insights about how consumer trust is earned at a time when it is at an all-time low for institutions — and yet people embrace riding in a stranger’s car or staying in the home of someone they don’t know. Botsman developed a concept called the trust stack, which has three levels: 1) Trust the idea; 2) Trust the platform; and 3) Trust the other users.

When we think about conferences and expos, trusting the idea scores strong. The evidence is pretty clear that face-to-face yields the highest levels of trust. Likewise for trusting the other users: Many events have a strong sense of community and year-round engagement.

I think the greatest trust risk for our industry has to do with the platform. The typical trade show’s business practices could lead to distrust from both attendees (buyers) and exhibitors (sellers). Here’s how:

  • Attendee Trust — A responsible platform should protect its biggest asset (buyers) and never sell them out. This means the practice of selling or providing usage of the pre- or post-show attendee list will likely stop. Since GDPR hit last year, customer expectations for data care have increased substantially. Opt-in will replace opt-out and very few people will opt in unless they are given an incentive.
  • Exhibitor Trust — Somewhere along the line, we inflated exhibitor rental and services costs — for everything from drayage to lead-retrieval readers to room rates — to help offset show-management costs and improve bottom lines. Exhibitors have responded by taking smaller footprints, doing digital product demonstrations, and shipping less freight. If an event organizer were to be completely transparent about the concessions and rebates they were receiving from the official show vendors (whom exhibitors believe are price gouging), would exhibitors trust your platform?

I think our model is ripe for disruption without a more transparent and trusted platform.

Never Sell Your Attendees Out

Many organizations use valuable main room experience time for telling the attendees about the association’s recent accomplishments and sponsor messages — they’ve got a captive audience, so why not? That used to be an accepted practice, but today’s attendees can smell an uninvited advertisement a mile away. They paid for education and networking, not for the privilege of being marketed to. Selling from the stage is no longer welcome and actually can do great harm when it comes to trusting your platform.

When collecting and considering the voice of the customer, be sure to understand what it takes to earn and keep their trust. It’s a competitive advantage that’s difficult for others to disrupt.

Dave Lutz, CMP, is managing director of Velvet Chainsaw Consulting, velvetchainsaw.com.


Watch Rachel Botsman’s TED Talk: “We’ve stopped trusting institutions and started trusting strangers.” 

Become a Member

Get premium access to provocative executive-level education, face-to-face networking and business intelligence.