Are Trade Shows Dead?

Photo by Kevin Dooley / licensed with CC BY 2.0.

By Emerson Schwartzkopf I’ll break the suspense and give you the answer straight off: No. As long as there are halls to rent and products to sell, somebody’s going to put on a show. Will all the pre-pandemic events survive in the 2020s? Now there’s the question worth considering. Trade shows – or, more precisely – the lack of them became one of the biggest story arcs in the hard-surface industry this year. Here at Stone Update, a month didn’t go by without a major event switching dates or going online-only in 2020 … or punting the whole affair into 2021. (Or, with some, until 2022.) Now, at year’s end, we’re watching as 2021 becomes a competition of who goes first with an in-person, walk-the-aisles event. As I’m writing this in early December, the clock is running for Marble 2021 next March in Izmir, Turkey, although limited vaccine distribution and damage from the October Aegean Sea earthquake make prospects very slim. Opening any event next year depends first on corralling COVID-19. Vaccines should be available in abundance by mid-2021, and the spread of the virus could be at a manageable level to turn trade show from super-spreaders to more of a good meet-and-greet. Convincing people to attend trade events is tied in with the general worries about business travel. It’s a regular topic on one of my favorite news shows, CNN International’s Quest Means Business, and I’ve seen the top people from airlines and trade groups try to come to grips about travel’s comeback. So far, there’s no consensus about when the big ramp-up will occur. Travel isn’t something that will be a problem. The pandemic will subside, albeit with a lot of work. And the same arguments about business travel making a paradigm shift arose -- and then faded away -- after September 11, 2001. Trade-show survival isn’t really about disease-fueled agoraphobia or the means of getting you to the hall. It’s whether you’re motivated to be there, and why. All trade events took a major hit at end of the go-go bubble economy of the 2000s, and a recovering economy in the early 2010s led shows out of the depths. Then a curious thing happened; in the last five to six years, attendance numbers didn’t grow at the same rate as other economic indexes. Most shows (including those with some involvement in hard surfaces) showed a slight average gain in the past five years for attendance, but year-to-year numbers porpoised up-and-down. In many industries, this would indicate a maturing audience, which is a nice way to say that growth is topping out. Unless you’re moving up to a 100% monopoly of a market, that’s not where you want to be. Trade-show organizers haven’t been asleep about this. Events began including different education plans, online participation and enhanced buyer programs before COVID-19 struck. What we’re likely to see, at least among those looking to survive and thrive, are increased efforts to change the trade-show concept. For attendees, the focus needs to steer away from milling through the halls and hauling home a big bag of handouts and trinkets that disappears somewhere in the office until it’s found and pitched in the dumpster. They need to be engaged, whether in person or online, and on their terms. I’ve been attending shows regularly in a variety of industries since 1980 – my feet have walked many miles of aisles in 40 years – and the measure of success was always attendance. After suspension of traditional operations due to the pandemic, that’s likely to change to participation. I’m hoping for the best – I have my travel reservations in place for at least three events before Labor Day next year – but 2021 could develop into a year where few of the major hard-surface events will take place. Extended postponements could cut away the last bit of inertia and cause even more people -- attendees and exhibitors -- to ask why they should return. As I noted at the start, the concept of trade shows will survive COVID-19. The effects of the pandemic, however, may accelerate changes in what you’ll see – and soon.