3 observations on the trade show industry


After a little over half a year of activity at adekSpo and some completed and running consulting projects – small and bigger, at least in my eyes – I found it time to make a round up of my experiences so far.  Of course they’re my observations, so I would love to hear some more.  And it’s just the 3 most remarkable to me, I bet there’s a dozen more to write about.

The trendsetters

Increasingly you can find amongst organizers, which in my opinion, have been for so many years, very traditional about their work methods, procedures and approaches, people that feel the need for a new breeze.  Often these people are outsiders, starting a new career in the event or trade show industry.  Events and trade shows still have a tremendous gravitational force on job seekers, mostly because it’s a work intensive industry, strangely and astonishinly having a low automation level.  That means higher employment security than average, which in today’s economic and employment situation, is a safe harbour worth steering to.  These new recruits are typically vertical specialists, and less horizontal generalists – which are so desired in this line of work – bringing along from previous jobs, experience and interests in relatively new domains for the trade show industry.  This makes that more organizers, especially smaller companies, are more excited about new and bold ways of organizing, promoting and staging their events.  These new and bold things still include quite traditional aspects of the event organizing game, like registration and promotion and booth sales and finding speakers, etc…  But they strategically and tacticially use new technology to handle that like : NFC, social media advertising, social CRM, conversational marketing, big data, twitter walls, mobile apps, voting systems, iBeacons,…

For one of these brave, small organizers, I did an interesting prototype using NFC tags and LinkedIn profile exchange as a fast way to register people entering a free seminar.  But it wasn’t just about the prototype, which by it’s name might suggest a pure technological nature of the project.  No, it was much more about the open, eager and innovative attitude towards registration and collecting personal information about attendees.  Even for free events, most organizers stick to, from a sense of tradition, lengthy fill-out forms including the most common fields like company, name, sex, address, phone, email,…  These hard facts data give a – sometimes false – sense of security : “I have the data and can use it again for next time.”.  But data changes over time, increasingly rapid and people sometimes lie or don’t fill out the complete form.  There’s less chance of that happening on their LinkedIn or Facebook or Twitter profile, especially in a B2B context.  On the contrary, the chance of that data still being accurate one or two years later, even after having changed company, is so much higher when you have your attendees’ LinkedIn data, than when you collected and processed that data yourself.  Exactly creating this awareness was the turning point for this organizer to start this project and analyse the technical possibilities and future feasability of such an approach.

The sceptic

Oh, I can hear you, dear readers, thinking : “What about compatibility, the Apple users and people that don’t have a smartphone ?”.  Because being sceptic and downright negative about innovation, is something we’ve all become (almost) used to in this industry.  But I’ll reply to you as I did to some people at this organizer who eventually did the prototype.  How many people still don’t use a smartphone ?  Really ? According to Nielsen studies the number of smartphone users worldwide is inching towards 45%, in 2013 in Europe and the US 69% of recent mobile phone acquirers bought a smartphone – even 80% for those aged below 35.  In B2B environments the use of a smartphone is close to obiquitous.  If you provide a solution for Android and iOS you cover about 93% of all devices used, according to another Nielsen survey in 2013. And Apple fans are known to be early adopters of any new kind of technology becoming available to them, so how long can it still take for them to get on board as well.  So that should provide an answer to all those “concerns”.

Even if it’s not entirely realistic to use something new right now, at least by investigating it thoroughly you’ll be ready when the time comes.  Which today sometimes happens faster than you anticipated.  And I firmly believe that being ready and using or testing a proven technology to the benefit of your attendee’s experience, will give your event the edge it will need.

What’s striking, but not surprising if you think about it, is that many of the sceptics are really big event companies.  Although they have the financial and human resources to be at the forefront, they’d rather wait and see.  I guess because they can – having these financial buffers and still being large trade shows (inter)nationally – and because there’s too many people defending their traditions.

The dawning

I’m positive that in the next months and years there will be growing numbers of trade show organizers, small and big, opening up to the idea of doing things in a new way, embracing technology and data.  I’m not saying we’re there yet.  But I see the light at the end of the tunnel.  The traditional reflex of sticking to “what’s known and has worked for so long”, and the firm belief – or is it frantic hope – that the need for human face-to-face contact will perpetually require trade shows being organized, is fading and being replaced by the recognition that “different” and “modern” can mean “better” and “more profitable”. I experience, in the last weeks, an increased interest in better data management, higher efficiency in work processes, greater transparency, better analytics, new business models and real customer focus.  Not yet as a big tidal wave of interest going through the industry, but more like ripples in a bath tub.  But it has to start somehow.

I truly hope this trend continues, for I really believe in the strength of trade shows and events and not just because it provides me work opportunities as a consultant.

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