Home TypeFeatures Hybrid trade shows: and why they always fail

Hybrid trade shows: and why they always fail

by EN

In his latest feature as guest editor, Phil Soar speaks to Robert Weissman about why he thinks hybrid and virtual trade shows are always doomed to be also-rans

Robert Weissman has been a senior executive in events businesses in the United States for many years and is perhaps the most trenchant regular observer of the trade show scene there.

Phil Soar: Robert, over the past 13 years you have written a lot about the hybrid B2B trade show and how, in your words: “It will fail……….Yet Again!”

Robert Weissman: Indeed: the concept of a virtual/hybrid B2B trade show attempting to apply a physical trade show paradigm to internet space and time is simply absurd. It makes one question not only degree of understanding on the part of platform suppliers about business professionals’ actual motivation, agendas and behaviour at live shows, but also their understanding of how these professionals use and navigate the internet as well.

Virtual trade shows have been an absolute failure for over three decades by every standard measurement of sustainable, on-going financial ROI to the organiser, exhibitor/sponsor satisfaction, and attendee engagement.

And the failure of virtual has nothing to do with platform technology, but rather the attendee psychology, motivation, and behaviour at physical B2B events.

PS: “Pivot to Digital” has been a cliché for our times – but might this become the new normal, as many seem to believe?

RW: Hail to the New Normal; Same as the Old Normal, for Most Intents and Purposes: In anticipation of the reopening of live events, enormous speculation has already taken place about what, if anything, will truly be significantly different about live trade shows. I suspect that most of the changes will be evolutionary, not revolutionary; and probably in development even before the lockdown. I believe the lockdown has provided an excellent opportunity to implement changes; many that were valid for some time, but difficult to accomplish due to status quo, press of business etc. Moving away from the attendee numbers game to “what was accomplished at the event”, is one example…”who” and “what” should take precedence over “how many.”

PS: So what is constant in trade shows, and will not change?

RW: One item that will remain constant…to the great benefits of live shows…is the attendee psychology, motivation, agenda, and behaviour for participating at live shows…also to the resulting great benefit of exhibitors and sponsors.

Trade shows can at times be inefficient, frustrating, aggravating, costly, and at times even frivolous in certain aspects…just like democracy. And, as with democracy, they are still superior to the alternatives; real or theoretical. Their ability to offer a package of business facilitation, education/instruction, and professional networking remains unsurpassed.

PS: You have been trenchant for three decades on the inability of any other models to replace traditional trade shows. Do you still believe that as strongly after the Pandemic?

RW: In speaking of theoretical alternatives, another aspect of ‘same as the old normal’ will be the continuation of the three decade long record of absolute failure of the stand-alone B2B virtual trade show model by every standard measurement of sustainable, on-going financial ROI, exhibitor/sponsor satisfaction, and attendee engagement. With the exception of career fairs, and certain med/tech events, the B2B virtual show will resume its cicada-like life cycle and hibernate until a future generation thinks they’ve discovered a new alternative.

Of course, as in the past, the potential of the old favourites, ‘hybrid’ and ‘365-day’ shows are now being discussed from armchairs around the world. I read a LinkedIn post where hybrid shows were referred to as the “Q’Anon of virtual”. Read that as you will.

Shifting from cicadas to locusts; the failure of virtual B2B without a competing physical alternative has been nothing short of biblical in magnitude. Helpful hint: the next time you are invited to a webinar designed to instruct how to make your next B2B virtual show better (I suspect there are around one or two million email invites along those lines in your mailbox) remember that history indicates that the second iteration of a virtual event is actually worse than the first. A third iteration is typically only seen under laboratory conditions; and its lifespan must be measured in micro-seconds. (eg: the infamous Virtual Comdex)

I project that in two event cycles or around 24 months time, B2B hybrid trade show platforms will have become a commodity, with a race toward zero pricing for the survivors. While consumers actively engage in conspicuous consumption, businesses love a commodity; with the possible exception of corporate jets, executive suite art, and departments intent on bloated budgets. Hybrid is most definitely a commodity; if my in-box is any indication.

PS: So where might we see ‘Hybriding in Plain Sight’?

RW: I don’t doubt that show organiser will place conference content on their websites, mainly to serve PR and marketing agendas (this is nothing new). There will also be some form of exhibitor presence; if not ‘virtual booths’ then a direct link to a special landing page on the exhibitor’s corporate website…essentially the equivalent to a free, standard listing in the show directory. (Is there really any difference between the info and functionality of a virtual booth and an existing company website?).

Fun fact: content videos, supplier ads, member forums etc. have been a standard feature of all manner of B2B media websites, including trade shows, for decades. In fact some of the user forums are equal to the LinkedIn user groups in participation, vitality, and benefits.

The most critical and currently ignored 800 pound gorilla line-item in the hybrid discussion is whether so-called hybrid show is a revenue-producing profit centre, or simply a mandatory service and/or PR/Marketing expense item.

PS: So who is paying what to whom; for how much, and how often?

RW: It’s not a complex question. Enquiring minds such show organiser (and shareholders in publicly traded firms) need to know. I daresay this financial model information is as important as the sage advice being given to organiser that speakers should be prepared in advance; content should not be too short or too long; and don’t give them anything good to hit but don’t walk them (for UK readers, these are baseball terms meaning that this content will not be controversial).

Once the dust settles, I believe the term ‘hybrid trade show’ will essentially become a meaningless buzzword, and perhaps even assume a negative cachet, similar to the case with the term ‘virtual trade show’ soon after its 2009-2011 flame-out.

PS: You argue, I think, that the 365-day model simply doesn’t work – that it is analogous with ‘InfoMarts’ and ‘Merchandise Marts’ which have never achieved the ‘365-day’ objectives claimed for them, particularly in the US?

RW: While I am dismissive of virtual/hybrid trade shows, I will give credit in the sense that they are at least attempting (unsuccessfully) to emulate a successful business model: the live B2B trade show. The 365-day event concept is as old as virtual and we never stop hearing about it; but based on an unsuccessful live concept. Around the turn of the century when behemoths like Comdex, InterOp, NetWorld, Internet World, etc. were drawing thousands of exhibitors and hundreds of thousands of attendees on a bi-weekly basis around the US, the concept of the local ‘Info-Mart’ arose. “Thousands of buyers could flock to the local showrooms of IBM, Microsoft, AST, Word Perfect, Lotus, DB4, Borland, etc., on a 365-day basis!”

What they ‘cudda’ and what they ‘dudda’ were two very distinct items. At least ten major cities announced info marts; some were actually built. In some cities, the skeletons are well preserved for historians to study. Had the tech industry been less self-centred, it could have looked at the model of the many various merchandise marts which still exist and function to this day; fashion, jewellery, gift, toy, etc. If there is not an in-house or city wide “market week (live) event at these places then”…the show rooms are locked! The halls are empty! They are typically staffed only for pre-set appointments. If you’re unable to visit a Merchandise Mart in your city with no market week activity, the Internet Archive has curated a brief video of what you might see. Of course, the question of the difference between a 365-day virtual mart presence and a standard corporate website applies here as well.

PS: So the standard corporate website does the job perfectly well?

RW: It would seem so.

PS: How do you feel exhibitors are responding to hybrid?

RW: Major firms have savvy exhibit departments; they also have very experienced digital media departments. Sometimes they compare notes. Occasionally they fight for budget allocation. The preferred currency of the digital realm is “pay for view/click/conversion”…not booths or digital real estate…and it’s easy to measure ROI with those models. Before embarking on development of any ambitious virtual B2B market it would be prudent to check what those ‘pay per’ rates are for your industry segment…the answers may surprise you…and may lead you to question your thinking.

PS: But will exhibitors and sponsors sample digital offerings?

RW: As with previous incarnations of virtual B2B trade shows; there has been some virtual engagement and financial activity over the past year. Before jumping to conclusions, it may help to remember that there was an auto introduced in the US called the Yugo in the mid 80’s…it sold around 88,500 in the first three years. Almost identical numbers to Tesla’s first three years. Sales declined in year four onward, until market removal two years later, and the title “the worst car in history.” In order to earn that title, people had to buy and experience a Yugo first (There were very few repeat buyers).

PS: We are all being approached by companies who are offering to put digital events on for us? How would you respond?

RW: For an independent valuation of the virtual/hybrid trade show, the next time you’re contacted by a platform supplier who wants you to pay them to run a virtual show for you, why not suggest that, in the same proven fashion of trade show daily/directory suppliers, they produce the virtual event, rather than selling you a platform…so give (sell?) them your content, provide the exhibitor list for them to sell the booths and sponsorships, etc. In other words, let them assume the risk and reap the benefits; and, like the directory model, hell, you could even get a percentage of the revenue above a certain agreed upon level. In other words leave it to the digital experts to ‘put their money where their mouse is’. They’ve been more than patient in attempting to instruct show organiser how to produce profit from virtual and hybrid. Let them spread their wings and become the ‘Netflix’ of re-purposed B2B trade show content, and related commerce. Their answer may surprise you.

PS: Examples?

RW: The contrast between the fortunes of two physical trade shows, Pack Expo and Print/Graph Expo offer a great illustration regarding the failure of B2B virtual trade shows. In the late nineties, they were two of the largest shows in the US. Print once boasted, north of 100,000 attendees and 900,000 square feet of exhibits in McCormick Place. As the internet grew in significance, Print began a steady decade+ decline, and essentially ended in 2019. It was ultimately incorporated into an event formerly one fifth its size. Concurrently, Pack Expo flourished and grew during that same time frame. Print focused on commercial printing; much of which could be easily conveyed in digital form on the internet; faster and cheaper in fact. In contrast, you can not send a package over the internet.

And professionals attend trade shows for a diverse package of activities and agendas too numerous to list here; probably unnecessary as well for anyone who has attended (or managed) a trade show. A package that can’t be duplicated and delivered digitally; certainly not in a financially viable manner; as proven by all of the failed efforts. Booths and seminars delivered separately from that full package in digital form have been proven to have little or no intrinsic monetary value. After one exposure, people won’t pay for repurposed B2B content, and will not interact with virtual booths.

PS: In effect, hybrid already exists?

RW: Many of the components of hybrid have, and will continue to exist on all manner of website, including trade shows. Cars will also continue to have cup holders, and hotel room coffee-makers will have 2″x3″ trifold napkins in their coffee packets.

The real ROI of these efforts will remain critical in the relative importance of these elements, and consequent investment of time and resources. I assume we’ve all seen the websites with atomic clocks showing a bazillion interactions sold, etc. (Typically, for a first time event). The question arises whether the organiser needs a middleman to achieve roughly the same real ROI. Could the same results be achieved with their existing CRM software, cloud-based processing and storage, free video streaming/archiving, free appointment scheduling/matchmaking, etc., with a little brainwork from in-house IT personnel plus show managers; perhaps with outside assistance from some IT/Web oriented high school honours students (the less preconceived notions about how a trade show works, the better).

PS: And how do you see the future, coming out of Covid?

RW: Back to the real world and the re-emergence of live B2B trade shows. I’m not going state they will be bigger than ever; I’m not even certain that’s a good thing. But I firmly believe they will be better than ever, based in no small part by understanding what we’ve missed and the lessons we’ve learned during the lockdown.

Speaking of the old normal, I recall an industry-wide promo slogan that IMO ranked with ‘I Am Born’ and ‘Call Me Ishmael’ in clarity, brevity, accuracy, and impact:

‘Trade shows Work!’

It might not be a bad idea to revisit that slogan.

PS: Robert, thank you.


Robert Weissman can be contacted via the following channels:

E: robw@alliancemediastrat.com | LinkedIn | Website


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