If the answer is ‘technology’, what is the question? Expert OpinionWorld

There’s an old saying in the States: If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. So what’s the problem with the exhibitions industry?

– Words by Charlie McCurdy, chief executive of Informa’s Global Exhibitions division

Face-to-face exhibitions deliver unique value. Strong exhibitions enjoy very high renewal rates, with bookings often made at, or soon after, this year’s event for next year’s. Exhibition stands are typically priced more in relation to value delivered to the customer than cost to the organiser. Profitability tends to be quite healthy and consistent year-to-year.

What’s so bad about that? Well, there’s a problem, but also an opportunity. As I see it, the problem is a slow-leaking tire, not a sudden blow-out on the highway.

Some successful trade shows in the US have emerged from B2B media groups that continue to offer associated media services. But many of these seem to be looking to exit publishing and even digital media as quickly as possible, which should serve as a warning signal to our own industry.

B2B publishers had to re-invent themselves and lost billions of dollars in advertising revenue to alternatives like Google AdWords. Further, did anyone else view Microsoft’s recent acquisition of LinkedIn as a carefully calculated move into our neighbourhood?

Let’s also look at a few of the underlying trends that should raise concerns. Industry data suggests that average booth size is in fact on a long-term slide, a fact often patched over by price increases. The exhibitions industry does seem to be coalescing at the expense of second-tier events, so it may be the industry as a whole has lost revenues even if the large, powerful shows haven’t yet suffered so much.

Customer behaviours have absolutely changed. Just as with their personal experience as Amazon or Netflix customers, attendees welcome and indeed expect a more personalised show experience, through channels that reflect their customer journey and offer expanded opportunities to see, approach and interact with exhibitors and other attendees.

Suppliers spend the biggest chunk of their marketing budgets online, both in supporting their own web presence as well as in third-party marketing. Those on the buy-side all use the internet to discover products. The exhibition is just one sales touchpoint in each vertical market’s flow, and organisers need to provide new inducements to get the right visitors coming in the right volume.


None of this is exactly new. How long do we have to keep hearing about ‘digital’ and ‘data’? We all use digital—isn’t email a key source of attendee promotion? We are also using social media to promote our shows, right? We all have attendee databases and exhibitor/prospect files. Can’t we just stick to our knitting? No.

Let’s face it, exhibition organisers are good at organising exhibitions, not creating online discovery or lead generation—a very different set of skills. And that has to change.

That’s the problem, here’s the opportunity: first, make the tradeshow easier for the attendee/buyer as a ‘shopping’ experience. We need to help attendee/buyers target/find the right suppliers. When was the last time you as a consumer made a large purchase decision by wandering around a giant mall?

Second, almost all of our exhibitors have a much harder time selling their own products than we as organisers have in selling stands. Let’s help suppliers get their message/products in front of those on the buy-side when they are looking to buy, both during the physical event as well as year-round.

Third, the markets we serve still rely on us, and we can reward their trust by offering incremental ways of reinforcing connectivity for existing buyer/supplier relationships and providing access to qualified suppliers and qualified leads.

How do we do this? Digital and data. Digital is the way to get in touch, and stay in touch, after the last stand is packed away until next year’s show. Data provides the metrics to target and qualify sources and leads, for both buyers and sellers. EW

Tom Hall

Tom Hall

Editor, Exhibition World

Tom Hall

Editor, Exhibition World