Industry Insights: Exhibitions—Alive & Kicking In the Digital Age

North America is arguably one of the most connected societies in the world, with usage of online media continuing to grow exponentially. Most US consumers now regularly research, compare and buy products online, and peer-to-peer recommendations are becoming a major influence on product selection.

With the busy autumn trade show season upon us, it’s interesting to consider how this seismic shift in buyer behavior might play out in the business-to-business environment. Have we have reached a point where we don’t need trade exhibitions?

Sure, with a computer, smartphone, or tablet you can now seek out products, read reviews, and purchase products at competitive prices. But are the rules being rewritten in the same way when it comes to significant business purchases, particularly where big ticket capital equipment or complex technology investments are concerned? Can decision makers gain all the information they need from the online space?

Perhaps unsurprisingly given my profession, my view is that live business events are still an important environment for researching and making major business investments. Granted, for small businesses in particular, leaving the office and shouldering travel and hotel expenses can be difficult. But when time is money, one or two days spent on a focused visit to a trade show are significantly more productive than hours spent trawling the Web for information, which still needs to be followed up with calls to sales reps or showroom visits. The opportunity to meet multiple vendors under one roof in a short timeframe is unbeatable in that respect.

From the manufacturer’s perspective, most recognise that live demonstration is fundamental to true appreciation of a product, and that the best and most mutually rewarding customer relationships are built face-to-face. Successful exhibitors do much more than sell; they engage fully with visitors to educate, share knowledge and—most importantly—inspire.

To see the value companies place on high-quality live events, look no further than FESPA Digital 2011, our recent show in Hamburg, Germany. Not only did the show attract 370 exhibitors, increasing in size by 3,500 sq.ft. on 2009, it was also FESPA’s fastest selling show ever. FESPA Digital 2011 attracted the largest audience ever, which tells us that exhibitions are alive and kicking.

At FESPA, we use our market knowledge to design compelling satellite programs, including everything from educational seminars and conferences to competitive car wrapping contests, providing visitors with interactive experiences that the Internet just can’t replicate.

The networking opportunities at live trade shows are unbeatable. You can interact through LinkedIn and Facebook, but you can’t build rapport this way. You can’t shake hands, exchange business cards and understand a person like you can with face-to-face contact.

I’m not criticising the opportunities the digital landscape has given us. Rather than take away from the value of exhibitions, digital media can often enhance them. By accessing the online trade media, they can assess technology and market trends, consider their objectives, and prioritise their time. Through social platforms such as FESPA’s Wide Network (http://widenetwork.ning.com), LinkedIN, Facebook and Twitter (@fespa), our print community can involve itself in discussion and debate, access pre-show information and arrange networking meetings in advance.

From my point of view, while exhibitions continue to attract a focused and interested audience, their future is secure. But as exhibition organisers there’s no room for complacency. Time-strapped visitors will gravitate to the events that meet their needs. Exhibitions, that stay fresh, innovate, and evolve to reflect changes in the markets they serve will continue to add value for both vendors and visitors, even in the Internet age.

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