Home TopicEvents Rolexes, mousetraps and the meaning of trade shows

Rolexes, mousetraps and the meaning of trade shows

by Martin Fullard

In his latest column for EN, guest editor Phil Soar suggests that trade shows continue to be misunderstood, and examines why people continue to go in numbers to their annual industry gathering 

I was once flying back from Johannesburg sitting next to a guy who ordered duty-free. He paid for it with a Kruger Rand (for those who don’t have any gold to jingle in their pockets, a Kruger Rand is a one-ounce gold coin; legal tender in South Africa). So, I asked him what he did for a living that meant he was carrying gold coins around. “I buy gold for Rolex watches,” he said.

So, I asked the inevitable question: “The Seiko on my wrist cost me £50 and it tells perfect time. Why would anyone, ever, pay $30,000 for a gold Rolex?”

“Simple. You obviously don’t understand Rolex,” he replied. “We are not in the business of selling watches. We are in the business of selling ostentation.”

That was one of those light bulb moments: companies are not necessarily in the business they appear to be in. Take another example: British Airways appear to be an airline, but what they really are is the owner of 50% of the massively valuable slots at Heathrow. They could let Virgin fly their planes and their routes in Virgin colours, but BA would still be just as valuable.

Which brings me, naturally, to mousetraps.

You presumably wouldn’t invent a mousetrap without asking: why do people want a mouse trap? So, start with the simple question: why do people go to trade shows?

The inevitable assumption in what we might broadly call the ‘media establishment’ has always been that trade shows are the same as ‘other’ media, and they sell and trade in the way that other media do.

In other words, that trade shows are essentially about ‘selling’ (exhibiting) or ‘buying’ (visitors), and indeed exhibition executives regularly parrot this cliché. Thus, in another inexhaustible cliché, trade shows are just three-dimensional magazines (I am excluding consumer shows, which is a very different business).

Hence trade shows are just like newspapers, or radio, or TV or even AdWords. And if this is what one believes (or, more accurately, never questions), then it is credible to assume that digitalisation is ripe and ready to disrupt our sector, though it is also fair to ask: why hasn’t it happened already?

Trade shows are not a media form: they are something else

Critically, unlike all media (including digital), trade shows do not sell on cost per thousand.

It is the only ‘media/medium’ where the consumers (the visitors) travel to the product and not the other way round (thus the consumers are highly self-selecting and motivated). They are not price sensitive in the way other media are (a show with 1,000 visitors might charge just the same as one with 10,000 visitors).

The barriers to entry are often very, very high (because of the tenancy slot system) compared with other media. You might have a great idea for a new Giftware Show but, because there are so few large exhibition halls, you will find it very hard to put it on profitably. You might launch in a small venue, but as soon as you are wall bound you can become stuck. The cost of entry is not necessarily high, but this is of little value if the barriers are tall enough.

And, as Alison Jackson (Nineteen Group) argues, what happens at trade shows is totally visible to everyone: you can see the hall, see how many people are in the hall, and see what they are doing. You can talk to the exhibitors. With other media you really don’t know how many eyeballs see what you spend (apart from Google etc – which isn’t to be discounted, but how many of those hits on ad words or Facebook or Twitter are bots?)

The intangibles are as important as the tangibles

Above all else: the intangibles are as important than the tangibles; this is the key point. Of course, there is buying and selling – particularly at transactional shows like gift, clothing and furniture – but in many events this is simply not the major driver.

We all believe we know why people read newspapers or magazines, why they use search engine optimisation or go to websites to buy a new kettle or book a holiday cottage, why they listen to the Today programme or watch Coronation Street. But the assumption that trade shows are solely about buying and selling is just not born out by the reality.

In a nutshell, trade shows cannot be treated as if they are a standard medium.

Trade shows reflect human traits, not just commercial ones

It can be very irritating for conventional publishers to observe that somehow trade shows keep dodging the digital bullet – particularly those who rejected trade show investment in the past because they saw it as the grubby, unexciting, slow moving, below the salt end of media. But…

People go because they really do want to be part of their annual industry gathering. They go to see old friends, even in Dusseldorf. They go for PR; they go looking for jobs; they go to see what other companies are doing. I can go on – and will – they go because they fancy getting out of the office or home for one or two or three days.

These are human traits, not ‘commercial’ traits. When we conduct in-depth face-to-face research – which we have chosen never to publish – the single biggest reason our interviewees give for going to events is ‘social’ – drinks, dinners with friends etc etc, a day out of the office, just looking around – a surprising number admitted to the ability to conduct a ‘relationship’. Above all other markets, this applies to the USA – where the annual industry event is often treated as a third week’s holiday in a country where two weeks is still the norm (ask why two-thirds of the major events happen in Las Vegas and Orlando).

Of course, there are digital alternatives (YouTube digitalised CloserStill events a decade ago with on-floor sessions being available online to those who do not attend the event live). But the core question remains the same: why do people go to Trade Shows? Unless you answer that, you cannot easily determine the threats.

Not many people think deeply about our business. And very often they see it as what it is not. We are not selling time machines…

Related Articles