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  • Antony Reeve-Crook

The same, but different

Trade shows and exhibitions are considerable drivers of economic development in the cities that host them, but two years of pandemic has changed - or rather, accelerated - the way in which we attend and benefit from these events.

As event directors around the world unite for Global Exhibitions Day on 1 June, we are reminded of the ways in which trade shows have evolved beyond the traditional format of square metres and sponsorships.

Global exhibition industry association UFI claims the industry is making a “remarkable comeback” against the backdrop of a receding pandemic. Evidence abounds that organisers and associations, with help from online event platforms, have kept many of their shows alive and in many cases find themselves able to return to business as usual.

However, business is no longer usual.

The post-pandemic pent-up demand for face-to-face events as facilitators of networking, research and education, will bring small and medium-size businesses together. But the way in which we cater for them is subject to trends previously discussed only in fringe breakout sessions at conferences staged by UFI around the world, promoting apps, navigation and other complementary digital products.

Mainstream discussion of virtual events, pejoratively defined as ‘not-real’, made way for hybrid events attended both in person and online. But hybrid too has been held up as an invalid solution, two-track and redundant in light of the fact that people tend to operate in one medium or the other, at any given point in time.

Today the buzzword is the ‘smart event’, essentially the same as before but embellished by technology that facilitates, among other things, pre-event scheduling and discovery, personalised agendas, live improvement, digital navigation and revenue streams.

You’ll also see many instances of the word ‘omnichannel’, a pervasive portmanteau that means, in effect, a company plans to accommodate sales via desktop or mobile device, phone or in-person, at any time of asking.

The question is, how will organisers adapt their shows and how will it affect the venues and destinations that seek to host them?

In these fractured times, our events celebrate the importance of community, of coming-together, of shared experiences where everyone is made to feel welcome.

In communication this month from UFI, the CEO of Informa Markets Charlie McCurdy said he was confident that through digital and data services complementary to its in-person platforms, the company was enhancing and evolving its event experiences “to do even more for the markets we serve”.

“Over the last few years, we have united as an industry to bring safe, successful events back to life,” he said. “We’re once again celebrating the magic of face-to-face connection, and creating a sustainable future, together. We are more than ever seeing the value of our services through the eyes of our customers, who are returning to the show floor with urgency and enthusiasm.”

The world’s largest trade show organiser has, it seems, spent the last two years working out how to give its attendees greater return on investment in order to get them back into their planes, trains and automobiles.

Because online attendees and revenue alone won’t pay the bills, even if it will play a bigger part in profitability, as AMR International's research demonstrates.

At Comexposium, president Renaud Hamaide has also been busy enriching his formats “in order to propose new experiences and offers to better serve our communities”.

“Through an omnichannel approach, our role is to propose global and safe platforms to our clients to drive economic recovery, rebuild trust, develop business relationships, showcase innovation and continue to constantly adapt to new environments and challenges, as we have done during the last two years.”

The problem with omnichannel

Now the baton falls to the destinations to help blow that magic back into the physical event, to secure the show as a must-attend experience in which, for a brief moment in time, an industry descends upon one city to do business and make memories.

The omnichannel approach and always-open nature of online community development may help develop an audience, but if the doors never close, then the event itself is at risk.

“In these fractured times, our events celebrate the importance of community, of coming-together, of shared experiences where everyone is made to feel welcome,” explains Hugh Jones, CEO at RX (Reed Exhibitions).

“In this spirit of collaboration, RX is committed to working closely with our global industry partners to share the magic of live events, keep health and safety front and central at our shows, and achieve our ambitious carbon net zero goal.”

It is down to the destinations to deliver the experience that pre- or post-pandemic, we remember when we think of the name of an international trade show.

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