Is this the end of trade shows? Many have been asking this question since the implications of the Covid-19 pandemic became clear and social restrictions came into place more or less all over the world. What was once considered a powerhouse in industrial clusters such as tech, automotive, food and beverage, and hospitality now looks beyond saving. Our minds struggle to cope with this idea. And our economies even more so. Italy, for one, relied heavily on its busy trade show program, with an annual revenue of € 60Bn and over 20 million attendees – which in turn was a significant booster for the hotels, restaurants, stores, and service providers in the cities in which the trade shows took place. And none of the industries involved was even remotely prepared to go full-digital for its most anticipated events. How are we going to manage the end of trade shows and what, if anything, are we going to put in their place? Are virtual trade shows an option? We don’t have answers, so we are going to ask some more questions.
Does the end of trade shows mean the end of exports?
Not just as drastically, but it is almost certain that exports and international exchanges will be affected if buyers and producers aren’t encouraged to meet. Italy relies on trade shows to plan 50% of its annual exports. Of course, no country is self-sufficient in every respect, which means goods will still need to be traded between nations, but it is impossible to forecast exactly how the relationships between buyers and producers will change. Our post-Covid world doesn’t have the same needs as the world as we had known it until last year – as the oil industry knows all too well – which will inevitably crush at least some markets. Imports and exports will now be regulated by domestic and international demand in a way that could reshape our globalised economy entirely. And another question lingers: if this is indeed the end of trade shows, what do we create in their place?
Can virtual trade shows produce the same results as “real” ones?
And, more importantly, do we need them to? Surely, if we are preparing for a world with different needs, we should be planning for virtual trade shows to satisfy the needs we have, rather than the ones we remember having. This means building the whole system up from scratch, not only in terms of new technologies but in terms of the goals we want to achieve and the kind of products it makes sense to showcase. Right now there is an unprecedented demand for PPE, sanitisers, and any kind of tool or technology that can guarantee personal protection and social distancing while putting some sense of normality back into social interaction. On the other hand, there are a lot of commodities that are in much lower demand than before. Before virtual trade shows can take off, companies will need to sort out their goals for the coming years. Many fashion companies, for instance, have converted factories to produce PPE. That means a shift in clusters too: they will now need to reach different buyers and distributors than before. This is still very much a work in progress and, while the industrial side of things gets organised, we will need to perfect the technology, to make sure we have the right infrastructures in place as soon as the demand is ripe.