Like hybrid work, virtual trade shows will likely continue even if COVID gets downgraded from pandemic to endemic. CES 2022 was the second live conference I did not attend. Information Today’s Knowledge Management World was once again shifted to virtual after months of planning for a return to Washington D.C. And then the Saturday before CES started, as Omicron, COVID’s catchy new variant swept across the globe, I made the call to cancel my Alaska Air flight and my New York New York accommodations. I keep returning the same money to my Alaska Air wallet. This is now its third trip from confirmed flight to credit for a future flight.
I worked CES just as intensely as if I had been on the ground in Vegas. I actually worked more intensely. Typically, I spend the first two days of the show in big rooms at Mandalay Bay listening to corporate announcements, seeing executives from afar. Many of these press events cater to topics I don’t cover, so there is a lot of downtime and not a lot of good working space. So I either end up going back-and-forth between my room and the events center, or I hang out and try to be as productive as possible.
The pre-events cap off with the Unveiled reception which teases the tech from a select group of vendors.
That all still happened. But I watched the events I was interested in virtually. During my downtime I plowed through the press releases, categorizing them for future posts. I usually post a couple of items from CES, and then more the following week. Because I was working from my home office, I published lengthier, more timely posts.
While I missed the wine, hors d’oeuvres, and camaraderie, I did not miss the long distances between venues, the unproductive downtime, or the pain in my legs and feet at the end of the day. The reading of press releases, which starts a couple of days before they open the floor, became the primary tool analysis tool as I understood what companies were announcing before I saw it elsewhere. (Too often, when running around CESm I encountered intriguing tech that I wasn’t looking for, and perhaps didn’t know what it was, when it was actually announced, or much about the company. That resulted in trying to find the PR team—a hit or miss proposition—to help me understand if what I was looking at was part of my story, something to review, or if it was just cool but not aligned with anything me or my readers care about).
Then there are the non-CES CES press events. I attend Pepcom and ShowStoppers. These off-the-floor, press and analyst-only events typically feature large companies like HP, Lenovo, Logitech—and smaller start-ups with innovations and a budget for getting the word out. I often find a majority of the products I end up reviewing over the next year—and the products that make me think about the market—at these events rather than on the main floor or the keynotes. If edge computing is the future of IT, then edge events are the future of CES.
This year both of those events happened in person. I was not there. Both companies offered up everything from virtual press kits to live streams with booth interviews. I love going to those events. I love touching the new products and talking with the engineers, developers, and marketing teams. But as an analyst, once I have the right e-mail, I get to that through the year.
CES jumpstarts my annual enthusiasm for technology, but it does not define it. Pepcom and ShowStoppers are both great at getting the right contacts to their attendees—they got the word out even if I wasn’t there to see the products. When they ship, and some already have, new products will arrive at my door for review. Analysts who attend CES and write reviews live in perpetual CES.
The floor has opened before ShowStoppers sets up its tabletop booths at The Wynn. So I am, as always, overwhelmed by the show floor. Over the years what I like to cover, including mobility, hardware, accessories, and XR (or metaverse stuff) gets put into specific areas, sort of. I have spent up to an hour not finding a booth. I have also run sweating to a meeting when I’m at one end of the Las Vegas Convention Center and need to be at the other side for the meeting. The new Tesla tunnel (the LVCC Loop) might have fixed that, but as I find with most transportation in Las Vegas, getting to the transportation or waiting takes almost as much time as walking. From what I read, it appears the diminished numbers at CES 2022 made transportation much easier. Not as easy, however, as spending the day in sessions, sending out evaluation requests to vendors, and then eating dinner with my family on time.
Don’t get me wrong. I love CES. I have gone for years. Before that, I trekked to Vegas for COMDEX. There is something about seeing things in-person and picking up on the energy. But you pay for that in inefficiency. And if information technology and consumer electronics are about anything, they are about efficiency. Sure, they both say experiences now, but what they mean is efficient experiences. Less lag time between you and an outcome, be that outcome scanning in a book, turning on your lights, ordering a pizza with your voice, placing your camera in the right place for a video conference, or getting the latest binge-worthy streamer on your device with fewer clicks.
So conferences will remain at least with a virtual component. Even if COVID subsides, conferences will likely still include a virtual component. And when the conference businesses realize that they can keep down expenses, claim sustainability credit, and still meet their core objectives without the logistics, foot pain, attendee frazzling, they will be hard-pressed to justify the overall time and expense for exhibitors and attendees.
There will be a moment though when COVID dies down and people strive to return to a pre-COVID mindset. My guess is, that the distributed work models that the pandemic forced on businesses will prevail. Fear will remain about the next outbreak—the personal risk-averse will stay home. The economics won’t make sense for others. If you can do it remotely just as well or better why go through the effort and expense of going in person.
The missing human touch will play a factor, but it may lose out to economics of efficiency. Information technology has touted the coming of an interconnected world—and we have that now. If the metaverse takes off, it will just reinforce the underlying technologies with new experiences. Virtual press kits with contact information will become avatars that take messages. Video conferences will become virtual 3D meetings. Sony’s chairman isn’t any more likely to take my question in the metaverse than he or she would be if I was in the room.
What I do know is that for CES 2022 I wrote more about the show, I did not retire a pair of shoes, I did not spend several days recovering from miles of walking that my body is not used to, I made more real connections than I do in person.
On that last note, many of us in the press and analyst community meet people at the show, exchange business cards. Sometimes, nothing comes of these exchanges. I have found the companies and their PR teams much more engaged this year. Follow-ups are fast, and as I said, some shipping products are already on the way to my porch (stay tuned for new reviews over the next several weeks).
Over the next decade, tradeshows will continue to evolve beyond their physical meeting convergence model. Technology will play an important role, as will economics, personal risk, and other factors. See the sidebar Serious Insights Forecast for the Future of Trade Shows for additional thoughts on the future of trade shows.
Serious Insights Forecasts The Future of Trade Shows
Keep in mind that we practice scenario planning, so some of the future of trade shows forecasts below cross different social, technological, economic, environmental, and political assumptions.
Physical trade shows will get smaller. Some will limit the number of attendees.
Trade shows will retain a virtual component.
Some trade shows will become virtual first or virtual only.
Trade show owners who concentrate on their core value proposition around relationship-building will likely see increase attendee satisfaction.
Trade show attendees will remain cautious about travel through 2022.
Virtual trade shows will increase the number of events individuals attend.
Virtual trade shows will reduce barriers to entry for new events, increasing the number of events and opportunities for connection.
As comic-cons have realized, industry trade shows will create personalized online events that upsell attendees who want to spend one-on-one time with industry luminaries.
Trade show spaces will see increasing financial pressures and some may shutter.
Tourist boards will seek new ways to attract tourists as revenue continues to fall from trade show attendance.
There will be an experimental transition point where trade shows attempt to return to pre-COVID levels, but they will meet with resistance from people with positive virtual experiences who find it hard to justify the cost of travel and associated risks.
The cost calculus for exhibitors will change toward virtual when they look at savings from booth space, travel, lodging, show services, exhibit design and setup, shipping, graphic, design, and other expenses. Some of those expenses will remain for virtual booths but the most expensive ones, like travel, lodging, show services, and rental of physical space, will be eliminated, as will downtime for booth staff.
Exhibitors will build virtual booth design and deployment skills and capacity so their virtual experiences can match or exceed physical experience expectations.
Non-linear trade show events will emerge, including persistent events.
Edge events will cluster around virtual events to provide added value to attendees.
Physical events will become more regional.
Hybrid events may evolve to include multiple regional and virtual events that coordinate in time rather than geography.
Attendee rosters may merge with a business connection platform like LinkedIn where most of the connection points already exist—events will become additional metadata. The platforms will explicitly represent multiple connection points—people will connect more than once, and the system will track how they know each other and where their lives have overlapped. Graphical maps of relationships will help people better visualize and explore their relationships. This may prove the impetus for business connection platform consolidation.
Any physical booths will be designed with safety co-equal to brand.
Virtual booth standards will emerge so exhibitors can leverage booth design investments across trade shows.
NFTs may displace trade show giveaways.
Virtual trade shows will also find ways to better integrate and partner with other marketing channels more seamlessly in order to compensate for the reduction in face-to-face marketing opportunities.
As trade show platforms evolve, next-tier organizations who usually just attend other shows will find it viable to develop their own trade shows targeted at customers and prospects.
Some trade show companies will abandon their shows and migrate toward consulting to help optimize trade show design for companies and developing trade-shows-as-a-service (TSaaS) platforms.
Some trade shows will insert a gamification layer to make up for swag and exhibitor games on the show floor.
For more serious insights on strategy and scenario planning click here.
Daniel W. Rasmus
Daniel W. Rasmus, Founder and Principal Analyst of Serious Insights, is an internationally recognized speaker on the future of work and education. He is the author of several books, including Listening to the Future and Management by Design.
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