The Future of Trade Shows

trade shows

During the pandemic, there was a decent amount of discussion about the future of trade shows. Predictably, these theories ranged from “they would go fully virtual” to “they spring right back and be just as big as before.” I think that those who predicted a spring back to the “old days” were closer to the truth. In fact, I think that if you look at most things that changed through the past few years, you will witness a slow return to how it used to be, as it is really difficult for people and traditions to change.

However, I also think and hope that while many of the standard structures of the trade show stay the same, I also hope that some things will change.

The biggest change (that I think we started to see at ISE 2023 and will continue into InfoComm and future trade shows) is fewer product announcements and fewer black boxes sitting on shelves in the booths. The announcement issue has been a problem for a while, again, because it is so hard for people to change their habits. It has been years and years (did it ever happen) since a product was announced at InfoComm and was actually ready to ship. It does seem that over the years the release dates have gone from one quarter to up to a year. All product announcements at trade shows (especially InfoComm and ISE) were vaporware.

Additionally, with the advent of excellent websites and a fully developed AV press corps, there is no longer any value in waiting to make a big announcement. Black boxes sitting on the shelves need to be a thing of the future as well. I can read a spec sheet and know the size of a product and its inputs and outputs. I don’t need to see a mock-up in person. I do want to see products in use that I can touch and use. Booths should stay the same size, maybe even get bigger, but use the space for people to put their hands on things. I would love to even see actual customers who are demonstrating the products since we know that there are the intended uses of products, and then there are the ways that people actually use them.

My second point is that we really learned that absence makes the heart grow fonder. Watching the reactions of people who had not seen each other face-to-face in years has been incredible. Then, watching those relationships continue to blossom and grow after the trade show is amazing. There is a tremendous community of AV people on social media, and that community continues to grow, mature and develop. In fact, you can literally see the growth in the community after a trade show and new people jump into the online discussions. I believe AVIXA can support this by continuing with partnerships similar to what they have made with the HETMA educational group. This year, for the first time, HETMA will have a booth at InfoComm. I am not well-versed in the exact details of what will happen at the booth, but my initial understanding is that it is a meet-up and social gathering place for people in higher ed (right on the show floor, not in some room half a mile down the hallway). This is simply amazing. Have a seat, meet people, have a vendor swing by and introduce themselves. Grab some colleagues and go take a tour of the show floor together or plan a lunch or dinner.

If the two changes listed above continue to develop, it is demonstrative of the fact that networking and learning are actually the two biggest benefits of a trade. As I have observed booths over the years, the size of the booths and the decisions made on what will happen often seem to be at odds with what many attendees would want. The biggest companies have enormous booths and are packed with people. So, without an appointment, you can not get anyone’s attention or see any products. Also, let’s face it. There is no way in the limited hours that the show floor is open, that a single person can see every booth. So, in my view, many manufacturers have done “the traditional thing” but not the “best” thing for customers. But many manufacturers have lunches or breakfasts that are aimed at certain audiences. Here is where you can get a great preview of what you would want to see in a booth and develop your strategy.

If the trade shows continue to develop in the patterns we have seen over the last few, I think that they will be back to their pre-pandemic numbers soon, and quite likely exceed them. Anyone who attends a trade show and can tell their company the certifications they achieved, the courses they took, the problems they solved and the connections they made, surely brings value to that company.