The Value of In-Person Trade Shows

Article By : Randall Restle

There is value in attending live events, even as a new wave of COVID prompts more delays, cancellations, and shifts to virtual forums.

Early in my career, trade shows were where I went to make discoveries of new technologies or to learn how people solved the problems that I had. For example, if I wanted to build my own printed circuit board manufacturing capability, I would go to a PCB trade show to learn about all of the equipment I needed, what is available, who supplies what, the cost of equipment, and generally to learn what issues I needed to address.

Others value trade shows for the economy of in-person meetings (i.e.: travel once, visit many), for the pursuit of mutual benefits, or to advance common interests. Trade shows are still useful for these but, at least in the United States, there are fewer in-person trade shows being held and this is not simply due to COVID-19. This article is written for those trying to justify whether or not to attend an in-person trade show and it mentions my favorite for embedded engineers. It provides some factors to help you make your decision.

We can look to Michael Porter and his five forces of competitive threats to determine why in-person trade shows are waning in the USA. These forces are the:

  • Threat of new entrants
  • Threat of substitutes
  • Bargaining power of customers
  • Bargaining power of suppliers
  • Threat of rivals

Of the threats, the internet has to be the greatest — the threat of substitutes.

With the benefit of search engines, it is possible to find anything existing and available online that I can think of. True enough, there can be a lot of noise in search results but with adequate knowledge of search engines’ advanced search features, you can nearly always find a solution — if it exists.

By visiting companies’ websites, it is easy to discover what is new and, subscribing to those companies’ mailing lists, will even get them to send you a regular email to keep you abreast of their developments. Albeit, you might not know what companies to visit if you are new to an industry. This might be satisfied by visiting distributors’ websites. Distributors serve an industry via an aggregate of suppliers and they make it their business to find the latest new products and suppliers to add to their line cards.

With the benefit of online video conferencing software like Zoom, Webex, Teams, Meet, and still others, we can get some of the interaction you get at an in-person event but online events miss something that in-person events have. I think this boils down to the serendipity of chance meetings and discoveries. Online loses the camaraderie of peers and it is easier to be distracted during a presentation. We are used to hitting the pause button when watching a video or using <alt><tab> to switch windows.

Online requires being deliberate when setting your agenda. It’s harder to depend on a lucky encounter. I’d say there is less spontaneity when online. It’s hard to see what’s attracting people to something you didn’t know about. Simply put, I believe in-person events have a better halo effect. I have more to say about this later.

Of course, there is also the cost of attending an in-person trade show: time away from the office, lodging expense, travel expense, and others but the big expenses are those of the exhibitors. From their perspective, they have costs to generate graphics that attract you. They have costs to fabricate their booths in order to host you should you visit. They pay a registration fee to have space for their booths and they have sponsorship opportunities to give them a larger presence at the venue. They don’t want to lose you as a lead so they also buy lead retrieval devices and deploy sales people to man their booths whether you visit or not.

Speaking of you as a lead, there is no getting away from being tracked. This happens with online and in-person trade shows. It’s debatable which does a better job of tracking you but I think it is the online event and with today’s predictive analytics, it’s also debatable which does a better job of qualifying you. Every interaction you make on a computer is easily recorded and subsequently mined. A salesperson doesn’t want to alienate you to the point of losing you as a prospective customer whereas no one is looking to form a one-to-one relationship when you are nothing more than data.

Technology tracking companies seem to be working more for themselves than for you. Once put on an emailing list, you seem to forever be on someone’s list as many of those lists are sold and traded. It’s hard to keep your online data and your metadata private.

Still, the largest in-person trade shows—those attracting the most of us—are very expensive for exhibitors, but what is it that attracts you to the in-person trade show?

Couple the upside benefits with the downside costs of in-person trade shows and you have a solid basis to understand why in-person trade shows are waning but coming back to a better halo effect with in-person events, they require your mental presence. I find it easier to remain focused when it is harder to switch my attention. I have two monitors on my computer and I never put the online event I am “watching” on both monitors. My second monitor is there reminding me of other things I want to and need to do.

Of course, this is not really different from using your smartphone during an in-person presentation, but it is easy to put the phone in your pocket to keep it from distracting you. So, I am more attentive at an in-person event.

When I am “present,” I can look to my peers to see if what impresses or confuses me has the same effect on them. Audience awareness helps me be aware of what is important and I can nudge my neighbor to get a quick answer to “what did he say?” I can also hear the spontaneous chuckles or sighs. After the presentation, I can see how many hands are up wanting to ask a question. I claim there is more engagement at in-person events and this results in “lucky” discoveries.

My family talks a lot when we gather. Many conversations are mundane but very often they broach an intriguing and novel topic. Enlightenment is the result and these are totally unplanned. It’s the setting that enables them. We learn by interacting with those having different experiences. We benefit from having the group’s eyes and ears looking out for new information and then sharing what excites them. Being plugged into a group of commonly interested people is a huge benefit to discovery.

Online events don’t do this well. It’s hard to have dinner with someone online (and my family has tried this). We lose intimacy when we are online. Knowing someone increases bonding through familiarity and understanding. As Dave Doherty, president and COO at Digi-Key Electronics told me when talking about why some regions favor being in-person over online, “…it still comes down to ‘trust’. You aren’t buying a solution…. you are buying a promise.” These are personal qualities.

Nearly all trade shows have a theme that attracts a complementary set of exhibitors. Shows are often sanctioned by industry trade groups and associations. Shows of these types don’t generally have too much competition. Sanctioning bodies do a good job of corralling everyone in the industry. If there are new shows, they are created by the bodies.

There is one last aspect to consider. In-person trade shows usually consist of an exhibition and a conference. The conference is where you find presentations on technical topics and topics facing the industry. The exhibition drives exhibitor costs as previously mentioned but this is where business is discussed. It is also the exhibition where discoveries are made while walking around.

I have not seen a good implementation of an online exhibition. Between exhibition and conference, online favors conferences but there is need for the quality of online to improve. As Doherty noted, “Technology has not yet made for effective ‘virtual trade shows’ but I’m confident any technology barrier could be overcome” and he cites improvements in online simulation tools as an example.

I have no doubt that they will evolve for the better.

Oh, as Steve Jobs would say, “one more thing” and probably the biggest thing at that. One should not be too cavalier in consideration of catching and then possibly spreading a deadly virus. Traveling involves a lot of close contact with strangers. I heard on the radio this morning the most dangerous parts of a flight as far as COVID-19 is concerned. It’s loading and unloading and especially when accessing the overhead bins (perhaps exertion increases danger). I recommend thinking hard about this.

So, what does the future of trade shows look like?

American in-person trade show expert, Paige Fossett from ADEX International, told me, “I honestly don’t think they will return to their ‘glory days’.” She said the trade show industry lost a lot of its “behind-the-scenes” workforce (i.e.: exhibit/display builders, labor/installation companies, caterers, general contractors, etc.) due to COVID-19, which affects the ability to execute trade shows effectively.

She mentioned the impact to cities and their infrastructure of hotel rooms, transportation, and restaurants so she thinks they will make some measure of a recovery but it will be a slow, cautious return with limited spending, limited people traveling to the show, and limited booth components until the world returns to “normal”, and even then,
she’s concerned companies will realize their alternatives that are not as costly.

She adds, the consensus from exhibitors about virtual shows is that they are “virtually useless” and they can not replace the effectiveness of the in-person experience.

Whereas in-person trade shows are waning, online events will wax. I again quote Doherty. Dave told me, “The safe answer [on the future of trade shows] is that it won’t be at either end of the spectrum; a full return to life as we previously knew it or completely virtual in which our business lives become a series of Zoom meetings.”

Due to COVID-19, whatever trade shows occurred during 2020 and early 2021 were online and some of their organizers were traditionally in-person trade show organizers.

This opens another type of trade show that I predict will be tried — the hybrid trade show: both in-person and online but I recently heard from an exhibitor that if there is an online option, companies will only allow their employees to attend it to save the cost of an in-person event. Regardless, I can see hybrid trade shows coming whereby the conference portion is online and the exhibition is in-person.

Wrapping up, are in-person trade shows worth attending? I think they are. I always found it useful to have a purpose or project in mind when attending. This helped me recognize solutions and focused my visit. I’ve attended trade shows in many places around the world: Asia, Europe, and the USA.

The best show in the world in my opinion is Embedded World. It attracted 31,000 visitors in 2019 and approximately 1,100 companies from around the world. Some 2,000 people from 46 countries attended its conference. Last year, that conference was online only — no exhibition element — but it will be in-person in 2022. My second favorite is Microchip Masters in the USA and my third is Electronica in Munich, Germany.

Whichever in-person show you choose to attend, I encourage you to do so soon before concern for costs morphs them into something less grand than they are today.

Randall Restle is president of Restle LLC, which advises semiconductor and component manufacturers on strategic technical marketing, product development, and organization matters.  Until June2020, Randall was the VP of Applications Engineering at Digi-Key.  He has more than 45 years of electronics industry experience as developer, manager, and executive.  He’s worked for OEMs, a semiconductor manufacturer, and distributors alike.  He holds BSEE, MS, and MBA degrees and is the inventor on several patents.  He can be contacted at randall@restle.us.

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