It’s Not How Hard You Get Hit…

January 4, 2021

Antony Reeve-Crook

Antony Reeve-Crook is the director of WhereMarketsMeet (WMM); a company that specializes in connecting industries in different countries through international trade shows and business events. He is also the author of "Where Markets Meet; The Story of the Modern Exhibition," and the former editor of UK-based trade show magazine Exhibition World.

The year that was 2020, a cataclysmic and unprecedented year for the global trade show industry, is almost behind us. But as the inaugural virtual Expo! Expo! gets underway and its attendees look to the New Year with trepidation, we must also look at positive reasons the events of the past year have forever altered the trade show industry’s landscape.

With the global suspension of large crowds, efforts to find remote solutions for business events were doubled in 2020. Practices previously marginalized by conventional face-to-face event organizers, such as online live streaming, social media marketing and digital matchmaking, became the mainstream. 

Here are five reasons why the evolution of our industry will continue in 2021:

1. We are now catering to an audience that is receptive to hybrid and online events. 

Today we have an audience that is receptive to new means of conducting exhibitions – and business in general. COVID-19 forced us to take our businesses to places we knew of but hadn’t visited; the webinars, chat rooms, streaming exhibitor sessions, online matchmaking and sponsorships. These are the places we must now populate and monetize in order to make the online portion of our business profitable.

2. The newfound legitimacy of online events has reduced geographic and financial obstacles for event attendees.

“Technology has helped to push businesses of all sectors, sizes and kinds around the corner in terms of their communication/interaction strategy during the pandemic,” explains Adam Parry, founder and director of London’s Event Tech Live. “Crucially, as content curators, organizers now have access to brilliant minds from corners of the world which would typically be out of reach of the traditional venue.

“What excites me is that, now, as an industry, we are catching up with the innovation we have seen in so many other sectors and are on the tip of truly unleashing the power of digital.”

As an industry, we must now think less about moments in time and more about our roles as the custodians of community. Online event technology being developed today enables us to connect the thoughts of niche industrial clusters without a boundary – physical or financial.

3. We will move toward standardization of our online proposition. 

We saw the emergence of organizations dedicated to the efficacy of online trade shows, such as the Virtual Events Institute in the U.S. and the Exhibition Think Tank partnership between UFI and consultancy MBB. At the same time, physical venues such as Germany’s Messe Frankfurt confirmed they would not be hosting events until mid 2021, technology providers were rising to fill that gap; to a greater or lesser extent, they became the venues. This will continue to some degree. 

4. When it comes to virtual and hybrid event platforms, we will see a delineation between the good, the bad and the ugly. 

As angel investor Marco Giberti wrote for the U.K.’s Event Industry News in October, “After decades of almost ignoring virtual events, it seems that now many of the big tech guys have begun paying attention.” LinkedIn is adding live video events to its service, and online giants including Alibaba and Google are also providing competition for traditional trade show organizers courting a digital audience.

In December, Bizzabo raised U.S. $138 million for a platform that helps you build and run virtual conferences while another platform, Hopin, raised $125 million the previous month, valuing the company at more than U.S. $2 billion. Investors have seen the future and they are putting their money where their digital mouths are (or will be). With this inflow of capital we can wave goodbye to the clunky, impenetrable online event tech of old.

As Mykyta Fastovets, CTO at Expoplatform explains: “Many of these tools that are gathering mainstream acceptance do more than compensate for a model forced into temporary redundancy; they augment and enhance the experience for visitor and exhibitors alike.”

5. COVID countermeasures will continue to restrict live international events for some time yet. 

Let’s face facts: the approval of antivirals marks the end of the beginning, not the beginning of the end for the global exhibitions industry. 

From challenges in getting anti-vax communities to accept the vaccine, to supplying parts of the world with rural populations, major challenges remain in the fight to limit the effects of coronavirus on our industry. The mRNA vaccines, such as those manufactured by Pfizer and Moderna, must be transported at -80 degree Celsius - and requires cold-chain infrastructure development described as “an immense challenge” by German logistics firm Deutsche Post.

While much triumphalism surrounds the return of large events in China, these serve an almost entirely domestic audience. The days of unfettered access and the international events of old are still a long way up the road.

This innovative industry has been hard at work developing online solutions and adapting to the conditions thrust upon it. Advocacy and campaigning for physical business events will continue unabated, but let’s take this opportunity to build a better model and show our potential audiences what we can really do. 

It’s not how hard you get hit … it’s how you get back up.

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