The Future: What Tradeshows Might Look Like in 2016

Is the tradeshow dying? A new ASAE report examines the future of tradeshows and identifies five scenarios for what they might look like in 2016. How will your association's event change?

Going to a tradeshow has usually meant donning your most comfortable business-appropriate shoes—conference tote bag and exhibit-hall map in hand—and setting out to navigate what feels like miles of fluorescent-lit aisles and thousands of booths filled with exhibitors eager to provide you with a product or service to solve your problems.

But that could be changing.

“People just aren’t patient enough to spend a day on the tradeshow floor,” says Lindsey Rosenthal, chief strategist of Events for Good. “Exhibitors aren’t seeing the kind of interaction they seek at these events anymore. And neither are participants.”

There’s more buzz than ever about transforming the way exhibitors network, connect with customers, and display products. “The tradeshow used to be the place where you’d make your list of the products you need, and you’d find the exhibitors,” says Aaron Wolowiec, CAE, founder and president of Event Garde. “But today, we’re such a must-have society. I don’t wait a year to find the new technology partner I need; I get on the internet.”

Industry leaders agree that replicating the same, tired tradeshows year after year is not an option. They also understand the association world tends to be conservative about change, more often watching other industries and responding to bellwether events. But change is vital.

“Scenarios for the Future: Convention Exhibits & Tradeshows of 2016,” a recently released report funded by the ASAE Foundation, Center for Exhibition Industry Research Foundation, Freeman, Gaylord Entertainment, and PCMA Education Foundation, examines what change might look like. The report, which explores current trends and urges industry members to take steps toward change, identifies five notions of what the industry could look like in three years. These scenarios, which emerged after much discussion, data, and feedback from inside and outside the industry, are described as if it were already 2016.

As you assess where your association show is and where it’s headed, “be creative,” says Francis Friedman, author of the report and president of Time & Place Strategies. “Ask yourself, ‘Where are we vulnerable? Do we have a plan? Are we guilty of tunnel vision?'”

For most associations, a hybrid—taking bits and pieces of several scenarios—might be the best way to plan for the future. Use the report to guide you as you consider the five scenarios.

1.The Future Is Now

This scenario looks much like the existing tradeshow model. No matter how spectacular the technology, it cannot replace powerful face-to-face meetings and large-scale, annual gatherings of like-minded individuals that have been the backbone of the tradeshow industry. In this scenario, change will happen gradually, and the fundamental metric is reaching attendance goals in the exhibition halls. The problem with this scenario is that being late to the future means losing muscle in reacting to competitors that are implementing change.

David DuBois, president and CEO of the International Association of Exhibitions and Events, doesn’t believe today is the future. But he does believe in the value of in-person contact. “I’ve had the greatest conversations and ‘aha’ moments during coffee breaks, or walking through a tradeshow and thinking, ‘Wow, that’s pretty cool,'” he says. “You cannot do that in a hybrid technology situation.”

2.The Future Is the Future

This scenario views technology as so disruptive that the entire essence of the tradeshow must be rebuilt. It envisions a self-contained world where the show is digitally sealed off to all outsiders and nonpartners, and the benefits are intended for the participants only. Imagine private data networks and no free WiFi. Every inch of the showroom floor will be tracked to optimize the experience, and every transaction—financial and social—will be augmented through digital technology. “This is the most draconian scenario,” Friedman says. “It basically says that we need to make the tradeshow a digital theme park.”

While there will surely be backlash related to data control and access in this scenario, there’s no question that technology is a critical driver of the future. Friedman says it’s important for planners to pay attention to larger trends. Associations can learn from retail, which had to respond to trends like mobile shopping and showrooming, whereby consumers find an item they like in a retail store and use their smartphone to search for a better price somewhere else.

3.Slow Walk to the Future

This scenario embraces gradual change and provides plenty of time to adapt. As association leaders understand, it takes time to build relationships with the right technology partners. The idea here is that tradeshows will become largely customized experiences for participants. Education and entertainment are paramount, new financial models are prevalent, and information flows freely. This scenario is risky only in that the association is vulnerable to more nimble competitors.

“This is probably where most folks are,” says PCMA Education Foundation Chair Gregg Talley, CAE, president and CEO of Talley Management Group. “I don’t think the show is over, and I don’t think most of us want to throw it all out and start from scratch.”

It’s important, he says, for associations to model the sort of changes they want for their members. To that end, earlier this year PCMA hosted “The Show Reimagined,”which included an event mobile app and educational booths with snippets on topics such as sponsorship revenue and booth design.

4. Show’s Over (But Keep Playing)

This scenario asserts that—partly thanks to size and bureaucracy—the tradeshow has become irrelevant. The idea is that the tradeshow as we know it will be extinct by 2016, and organizers need to figure out a new model to bring together exhibitors and attendees. These future events will be smaller, will move faster, and will target a more upscale audience. These events focus less on buying and selling, and the atmosphere is more relaxed, even party-like. The risks: When it’s too late, organizers might realize that bigger was better; and by seeking profitability and speed, events may lose the loyalty of longtime exhibitors.

“The opposite of a public tradeshow is a hosted-buyer program, only open to prequalified buyers to represent a certain amount of dollars,” Friedman says. “It allows intense one-on-one meetings. You’re working to the benefit of your exhibitors.” He says a number of shows are testing the hosted-buyer concept, and he predicts it will become more relevant over time.

5. The Big Reset

In this scenario, the tradeshow is rebuilt from the bottom up. The outcome will be something never seen before, where top industry professionals select the best products and services for showcasing. Direct business-to-business will be a thing of the past, and the emphasis will be on promoting the industry and its star products. This event will be to an industry what the Olympic Games are to sport, what the Academy Awards are to film. The risk to this scenario is that too much time will be spent on experimentation and not enough on the core solution.

“This is a creative one,” Friedman says. “It says what we really want is to raise awareness of our industry and products, so we’re going to turn it into a public relations event.” This might be a viable solution for some industries, he says, pointing to the National Restaurant Association, which introduced an awards program eight years ago called Kitchen Innovations. This juried event, he says, raised the bar high enough that it forced the restaurant industry to improve its kitchen equipment.


(Associations Now illustration)

Melanie D.G. Kaplan

By Melanie D.G. Kaplan

Melanie D.G. Kaplan writes regularly for the Washington Post and is a contributing editor at Smart Planet/CBS Interactive. MORE

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