Is the Future of Tradeshows and Conventions Digital?

Written by Melissa Stenson

March 5, 2021

A full year into the pandemic, the $2.5 trillion tradeshow and events industry has added to the damaging ripple effect across the airline, hotel, entertainment, restaurant and B2B marketing industries. More questions remain than answers on what the return to live events will look like — or when it will happen.

Forced to evolve as events were canceled and social distancing and safer-at-home initiatives rolled out, event marketers quickly began transforming their physical events into virtual ones. And despite varying degrees of success across our industry, it has become apparent that virtual events are here to stay. They are efficient and effective, often leading to a much broader reach. At our first Virtual PrimeTime event in October 2020, Nationwide Marketing Group saw 369 member companies attend online that had never attended a live show.

Marketers are reveling the opportunity to capture content that is typically one-and-done at live events and finding ways to reuse this information in other formats and through other channels. And IT teams are pining over newly captured metrics. At a live event, costly and time-consuming RFID, beacons and lead-retrieval systems were enacted, but at a digital event, everything is easily tracked. Who attended, how long they viewed, when they viewed, how often they viewed, what common threads exist between items they viewed, what items did they skip. It’s an unending amount of customer intel, and we can use it to make our events better.

We’re still in the early stages of virtual events, and while many of us are guilty of attempting to recreate our physical events in a digital environment, it’s becoming apparent that we must develop a new strategy for this new medium. Making sessions shorter and allowing for on-demand viewing is good step, but it is only the first step. Media expert Marshall McLuhan once said, “When any new form comes into the foreground of things, we naturally look at it through the old stereos … We’re just trying to fit the old things into the new form, instead of asking what the new form will do to all the assumptions we had before.” An example of this is seen in the earliest television programming which was sometimes just a few people reading a radio play while standing in front of a camera. It took time for TV to develop its own identity, and with streaming services, it is once again morphing into something new.

As vaccine rollout expands, we’re all looking forward to getting back face-to-face with our communities later this spring. A year of lockdown has led to an increased desire for in-person experiences, which are more intense and more memorable than their digital counterparts. Several of my favorite memories are from previous PrimeTime events, Martina McBride at The Grand Old Opry, dinner on the field at Cowboys Stadium and the largest beach party I’ve ever seen at the WDW Dolphin. There are the obvious benefits of tradeshows – the buying, networking and education, but that precious face-time with your peers that re-energizes and gives way to connections that can support and guide you just simply is not happening online. In some ways, the more digital we get, the more desperate we are for live interactions.

While I expect virtual events to evolve and I look forward to using them to efficiently connect our community quickly and more often, there is an idea called “revenge attendance” that is quickly gaining traction in the events industry. It is based on the principle that people crave social interactions in a face-to-face setting, and after being restricted for over a year, there will be a huge surge in attendance at live events. I hope it is true, and I hope that we experience the largest gathering of independent retailers in history at our next PrimeTime event.


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