Our previous ‘Tradeshows In The New Universe‘ entry cast an eye over the emerging virtual events that were being scheduled to replace cancelled trade shows and conventions, and offered thoughts about aspects of trade show value that might be enhanced or compromised in digital delivery. Now three of those shows have happened. Did they pass you by or were you there? If you were able to attend any of these what do you think, and did you miss the real thing?

AV virtual tradeshows - Interfacio
Tradeshows have many parts but the hardest to replicate may be the social scene and the business that goes on there…

In a pre-Covid world, cancelling NAB, AES, or InfoComm would have been the biggest commercial disaster of the year for many businesses, and certainly would have defined that year for them, but not, as it turns out, in 2020. Instead of crying foul, most of us acknowledged what was really at stake, and understood that difficult and potentially quite damaging decisions are necessary when lives are at risk. In any case, manufacturers, distributors, and retailers – the traditional commercial bedrock of most trade shows and conventions – have been facing their own tough times and concentrating hard on overcoming a whole mess of new challenges in recent months.

So, it’s especially impressive that around the world the industry has stepped up together and found new ways to enable critical business and educational engagement around these key events.

For the organisers, this has meant finding routes to completely re-defining the events themselves. The fact that they managed, in such short timescales, to develop, populate, and put on these ambitious experiences, is a wonder in itself.

The AES convention in Vienna was officially cancelled on 30th March. By 20th April the organisers had formed a new plan and had already done the background work on potential platforms and formats. From there, it took a little over 40 days to bring AES Vienna back, into an alternative reality. It was a feat made more impressive given that much of the person-power behind AES events is voluntary.

InfoComm, a much bigger show focussed on the Audio-Visual industries, went through a similar process. Rochelle Richardson, CEM, Senior Vice President of Expositions and Events at AVIXA (the association that owns and runs InfoComm) told us that their process from the launch of the virtual alternative idea to opening the virtual doors took place over only 60 business days. “The team delivered a complete platform, focussing on exhibits, a robust offering of content, and the ability for attendees to network, including an AI match-making feature. That’s a huge undertaking.”

Perhaps most impressive is that these processes were not simply technical challenges, but logistical and market challenges. How do you bring familiar components of a real-world social and commercial experience to the virtual world in a way that will engage and satisfy attendees?

Remaking a classic

Trade shows’ recipes for success have always varied with organisers’ objectives and emphasis, but whatever balance is finally struck, the three main ingredients tend to be consistent: Education, commerce, and social. Education is not simply student-focussed but includes anything from paper presentations and certified training sessions to workshops and discussion forums. The commercial component focusses on event-specific vehicles for the manufacturer, retail, and services sectors. The most obvious of those is the exhibition booth, but commercial opportunities have substantial crossover into both the educational and social areas with demos, sponsorships, sub-events, and so on. The social aspect is he most abstract, but many see it as the most valuable of all.

Nobody believes that a virtual trade show using currently available technologies could hope to find equivalents for every single facet of the real thing. However, exploring and finding the strengths of virtual events has certainly paid off in the current climate, and will certainly inform the future hybrid trade show models that now seem inevitable.

Replacing an exhibition – the product and technology showcase – is possibly the most problematic commercial challenge for trade show organisers. Afterall, the show booth phenomenon is defined by face-to-face contact with customers, hands-on demos, and social interactions that can benefit both sides. The bare functional bones of a show booth (an exposition of product or service) is largely taken care of by online presence these days, with a little bit of traditional ‘shop window’ marketing thrown in. So, the presence of a content space at a virtual trade show where you can deposit digital materials sounds a lot like, well, a company website. In fact, websites come with many advantages that virtual exhibition spaces do not. For instance, they don’t sit behind registration or payment walls, and manufacturers’ own websites do not define limits for the quantity, type, or presentation style of content. On the other hand, trade show content spaces hold out the promise of focussed choices rather than a sprawling mishmash of miscellaneous wonder.

What does seem to have worked well at these shows is commercial participation in the main content channels, whether it’s through sponsorship of individual sessions, participation in those sessions, or even buying complete slots and presenting technologies and products as part of the educational track. Content that is exclusive to the show, whether its origins are commercial or academic, is a much bigger draw.

AES Vienna concentrated on some core sponsorship deals with manufacturers and used a pay-for-entry model based on the high value educational content of the event. A membership promotion was also rolled into that, which yielded a nice jump in AES memberships around show time. Speaker manufacturer Genelec was a Platinum Sponsor of the event and Lars-Olof Janflod, the Press and PR Director at Genelec told us the company was very pleased with the response to the AES partnership. “Our involvement was mostly with the presentations – being part of them and giving our own. We also ran a virtual distributor meeting alongside AES Vienna, which was very well received.”

Shure Incorporated supported Infocomm Connected this year and reported good response to the event, and a high value outcome. Chris Merrick is Global Marketing Director for the Shure Systems Business: “We had to scramble to create a whole bunch of new content – videos and presentations – to support it, but Initially the numbers for leads and contacts are looking quite good. The main value in the event probably wasn’t the platform per se – it was Avixa’s ability to reach out to the AV industry, to get an audience to come along.”

As with other companies, Shure usually has distributor and channel events scheduled around the show calendar and had to revise those plans at short notice to make the most of online opportunity. “We did run a series of virtual roadshows for the US market ahead of Infocomm. Those were planned to be physical before we had to pull them, so they became an online experience.

All of the organisers we spoke to agreed that streamed content was a key component for sponsors and exhibitors – even more so if it was exclusive to the show, or even live.

Going live….

Interestingly, the need to cater for a wide range of time zones, to work within the bounds of the chosen technology platform and the availability of speakers, and to make sure the content came across reliably, meant that the approach to ‘live’ varied  across the exhibitions and across individual sessions. Some were entirely pre-recorded, some used pre-recorded presentations with live Q&A and forum aspects, while others had live, interactive elements.

InfoComm’s educational and streamed content included a mix of most of those approaches. The show ran in three time zone phases each day for the EMEA, American, and Asia-Pacific demographics with presentations in multiple languages. “I was very proud of the amount of live content we managed to put on.” Rochelle Richardson told us. “We had live presentations, not just curated by AVIXA but also from exhibitors. we have a number of panel sessions, three keynotes, lighting technology rounds and more. All of that is available online, on demand until 21st August.”

However, for a large number of people, businesses, and organisations, it’s the social side of a trade show that makes the expense and the effort worthwhile. Multifarious deals, contacts, and friendships are created, nurtured, and concluded at the beach bar in the Rai Centre during ISE and IBC for example, at post-show awards ceremonies, at distributor and customer events, and at manufacturer parties. For some, the trade show is just a backdrop for the biggest and most profitable working breakfast, lunch, dinner, and drinks, all rolled into one. Many of us are just keen to shake a hand, or get the inside scoop on a new product direct from the Product Manager’s mouth, or hear the latest gossip about high profile industry movers and shakers. These are the things that trade shows are made of.

Oddly, being social online isn’t easy. Most social media experiences require some kind of connection criteria – which forms the social media ‘bubble’ phenomenon – and at least a short run up to posting and interacting. There’s a massive leap from that to coming across a product you’ve never seen before during a random wander, then catching the eye of a salesperson to ask a few questions. Equally, in a large group Teams or Zoom meeting which by necessity many of these online sessions currently are, it’s hard to metaphorically grab a drink and go off into a corner for a catchup with someone you run into there and are happy to see or just want to speak with. We expect the platforms themselves are already working on exactly these type of functionality enhancements to enable a more ‘real’ social situation and engagement for participants.

AES Vienna ran a few social events over and above the interaction afforded by Q&A / chat style formats. One example was the Education & Careers Fair, which was part Zoom meeting and part webinar. That event attracted 300 participants. InfoComm also ran some more informal social events, including a team trivia night, the InfoComm virtual 5k in aid of the AVIXA Foundation (student scholarship fund), and focussed meet-ups such as the AVIXA Women’s Council breakfast.

An interesting parallel can be drawn with the activities of the Sports Video Group (SVG). SVG is essentially an organisation that provides community, content, and events for sports broadcasters, including nine in-person US and four in-person EU conferences. The Group normally has a significant presence at the NAB show, which this year was replaced by its virtual offering: NAB Express.

Joe Hosken, General Manager of SVG Europe, told us that physical events and meet-ups represent maybe 80 or 90 percent of the value proposition of SVG, so it has been important for the Group to embrace virtual social and event space. SVG didn’t use the NAB express platform but took steps to make sure the usual sponsor content publishing and social sides were replaced. “Live technology question and answer sessions work really well,” he noted. “We also ran a successful online awards evening with a VIP reception beforehand and some fun interactive aspects – it was something a little bit different, and people appreciated that. We’re also holding some women’s networking events. A recent one featured an interview with Barbara Slater, Director of BBC sport.”

To a hybrid future

So, in the several months of global lock-down due to the Covid pandemic, key industry infrastructure providers have stepped up and provided the means to continue to do business, educate both students and professionals, and, to a small extent at least, quench the thirst for social interaction in our professional lives. For that, they should be applauded. The numbers and metrics from those shows are very respectable, given everything that was going on across the world. AES Vienna had 1400 registered participants with a lot more than that taking advantage of the free content available. Infocom had 494 exhibitors and 23,400 registered participants, with an additional 5000 registrations at the time of writing for access to the Infocomm Connected 2020 content since the event closed, and that number will continue to go up until the ‘show’ official closes on August 21st.

Now the first wave of virtual events has been and gone, the bigger picture is much clearer. It’s a scene of rapid revolution in some fundamental professional infrastructures. Trade Show organisers and trade associations have suddenly become digital content and social media providers. They have extended the life of a trade show from a few intense days to whatever limits they put on access to the archived content. They have had to find ways of bringing international industries together without the use of an aeroplane, and they have started to fill a hole left by the downturn in the traditional print media demographic – something that manufacturers have been trying to do for some time.

As the northern hemisphere moves into the summer months and as global lock-down situations remain changing and unpredictable, there are a few weeks of breathing space now, as businesses take stock and continue to work on their new business plans.

The next big virtual event is IBC on September 11-14th and we know that the organisation together with their partners are already well into the development of their offering, with the IBC Showcase already launched and much more in the works. An opportunity for the broadcast and streaming technology industry to learn from what has already been tried and add some new elements to really show us how it’s done.

One thing everyone agrees on is that trade shows will never be the same again. All the people we spoke to spelled out the inevitability of a hybrid future where attendees join events in numerous ways. And now, with the cat out of the bag, Genelec’s Lars-Olof Janflod was candid about the outlook for some of the smaller shows: “In the future we will see a lot more happening in virtual spaces. We’ve had the means for some time now, but never realised the full potential. We will still go to the bigger trade shows, but I think a lot of regional shows may suffer.”

“These past months have proved the value of having a virtual event alongside the physical event. Hopefully the physical events will come back – I think people still need to meet up and experience things – but there is the issue of cost. We’re going to be in a global economic crisis for the next couple of years at least so the virtual event will become a valuable part of our lives.”

The virtual show has many advantages – from the knock-on environmental benefits of less travel, to making financial and logistical barriers to participation disappear. On the other hand, everyone wants a return to some kind of normal and are hoping to return to face-to-face exhibitions and conferences as soon as possible. Organisations are planning real world shows for next year, right now, with virtual show contingencies. But even if those contingencies are not needed, they will definitely be a big part of the new trade show normal, in the new Covid world.

Have you attended any virtual trade shows? We would love to hear your feedback. If you would like to find out how Interfacio can help you or your organisation during these unprecedented times, please email us on hello@interfacio.com or call us on + 44 (0) 20 8986 5002 (UK/Intl) or 1-800-578-0144 (USA/Canada)