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Trade Shows: What’s Next?


“Will trade shows come back, as economies start to open up?” “What are trade shows going to look like post pandemic?” “Will it be worthwhile to exhibit at shows?”

Several of my clients have recently asked some serious questions about trade shows!

I am optimistic shows will open in the next few months and will return to growing the world’s economies.

The size of the trade show industry alone will provide momentum to reopen for business, and there are other good reasons shows will return sooner rather than later.

Trade shows experienced general downturns post 9/11 and after the 2008 financial crisis, the two most recent recessionary examples similar in impact to our current situation. In both instances, the recovery happened with quarter-over-quarter consistent growth ultimately surpassing pre-recession levels. While the recovery from the pandemic may be different, there will be some similarities.

UFI published a report in December 2019 that framed the global economic impact of the trade show industry, To extract just a few of the conclusions of that study:

2018 Direct Global Impact

  • Approximately 32,000 exhibitions (shows) directly involved 303 million visitors
  • Nearly five million exhibitors across more than 180 countries
  • More than $136.9 billion of direct spending by visitors, exhibitors and additional exhibitions-related expenditures
  • Exhibitions supported 3 million direct jobs globally
  • Generated $81.1 billion of direct GDP
  • Exhibitions generated nearly $30,200 in direct spending per exhibitor on a global basis
  • Based on $81.1 billion direct GDP impact, the exhibitions sector would rank as the 72nd largest economy globally

2018 Total (direct and induced) Global Impact

  • $325.0 billion of business sales
  • 2 million jobs
  • $197.5 billion GDP
  • Would rank the sector as the 56th largest economy globally, larger than the economies of countries such as Hungary, Kuwait, Sri Lanka, and Ecuador. From the same 2019 study, “North America and Europe ranked first and second in direct spending, representing 44% and 34% of total global direct spending in 2018, respectively. … (of the) nearly 303 million visitors and 4.5 million exhibitors in 2018…Europe ranked first in terms of total visitors with 112.0 million visitors and 1.3 million exhibitors. North America followed with 91.2 million visitors and 1.6 million exhibitors.”

There is no doubt, the trade show industry is a large part of the global economy, in numbers of jobs, and in direct and total economic impact. Zooming in, consider the impact on local levels. Trade shows are serious economic generators in dozens and dozens of cities across North America, employing thousands. Trade shows are magnets to these cities, attracting spending by show visitors throughout the local economies; hotels, restaurants, retail, transportation and many other opportunities.

As I mentioned above, the sheer size of the trade show industry will provide momentum to reopen for business. Cities want their residents to be able to return to work (and tax revenue.) Businesses need to reopen. Trade shows can and will directly restart jobs. Exhibitions will reconnect companies within hundreds of industries so they can collectively jump start their businesses and put people back to work. Trade shows will come back because they are one of the most efficient ways businesses communicate directly with customers, prospects and suppliers.

Trade shows are one of the most effective platforms to jump start the global economy.

Not only the size and effectiveness of the trade show industry encourages their eventual return, but our natural behavior as humans and citizens of the world will compel shows to return. Who among us isn’t ready to leave the house and hang out with friends and strangers alike? We are ready to return to our churches, synagogues and mosques, go to a play, or show, or concert, and shop at farmers markets and art fairs. We are ready to go back to work! By and large, we need to be with other people, to enjoy the same experience, to laugh and sing and clap together. We thrive in growing and learning together, and we enjoy sharing our knowledge and experiences with others. Trade shows might be way down the list of events in terms of fun, but attending shows provides another means for social and industry networking. Note: to make your trade fair a bit more fun, remind your booth staffers to remember to smile! It makes it a more enjoyable social experience and attracts more booth traffic too!

Trade shows will not return to full capacity overnight. Our experiences recovering from past recessions tells us exhibitions will start with fewer exhibitors and fewer attendees. Companies will be making hard choices as they ramp up their businesses, and many will determine to spend in areas they deem more necessary to their immediate needs. Some individuals will determine not to travel. These factors, and more, will result in trade shows starting at a slower pace and increasing in size and attendance over time.

For those that make the decision to return to shows immediately, there will be some apprehension, but also an opportunity. My experience during the recoveries coming out of 9/11 and 2008, when the early shows were smaller and not as well attended, the quality of the exhibitors and attendees were much better than at shows just prior to those events. Firms that were seriously looking to do business, were the ones who chose to immediately return and exhibit at their industry trade show. They wanted and needed to do business, had the quality products and services they believed in, and knew if they could get in front of decision makers, success would be theirs.

Companies that decided to attend those early industry shows, sent fewer staffers, resulting in high concentrations of decision makers. These firms were on the hunt for needed products, services and suppliers that would give them the advantage they wanted within their industry. Coming out of those shows, exhibitors had met with fewer people, and gathered fewer leads. But the leads gathered were, on the whole, qualified and real. The connections made were with decision makers.

The trade show model remains valid and has many positive purposes and outcomes. Trade shows can and will help the world economy recover, by helping individual businesses recover. Hopefully we will take this opportunity to emerge not the same, but better.


About the Author

Tim Carter is an award-winning Sr. Marketing Consultant with Skyline Exhibits & Design in Greenville, SC. During his 20+ year tenure, Mr. Carter has been recognized for both multiple sales accomplishments, as well as design skills having led the winning team that received the Best Large Island Exhibit Award at EXHIBITORLIVE 2014. Tim’s prior experience as a Marketing Executive with SRP, as well as an entrepreneurial business owner, empower his empathy for and ability to lead clients and make sizable contributions to their success across a broad spectrum of industries.

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