Are Trade Shows Over?

It could be a free chocolate fountain and foot massage night, if it means they have to get in the car *again* and be engaged *again* they just aren’t up for it.

I got an email this morning from a construction trade show I’ve attended for the past two years on behalf of two different clients.

The trade show is cancelled in favour of “an online experience.” I was not surprised. I was also not interested.

Don’t Get Me Wrong- I LOVE Trade Shows

I’ve helped my clients prepare their own successful presentations for this trade show, and I also met and signed a new client there. None of this would have been possible in an online structure.

As a reporter, I attended major oil and gas conferences, conferences hosting important medical researchers I wanted to interview, and of course home and garden shows featuring various celebrities I was assigned to interview. None of that would have been possible online either.

If I can take off my copywriter-marketer hat for a minute, I have a fairly busy little hobby jewelry side hustle that consists of an online shop and did consist of a steady stream of craft markets, which are essentially trade shows.

It’s in this capacity I really learned about what makes a trade show booth attract visitors, what type of shows were best for my little products, and most germane to today’s topic: when it was time to hang up my cash box and move to online-only.

Trade Shows & Conferences Are Changing

I love –I mean LOVE– conferences and trade shows. But they are costly to participate in, and costly to send team members to attend.

I believe COVID-19 will make the entire industry shift forever and here’s why:

1) Companies are using COVID-19 as a cost-cutter

Many large companies are having people work at home for longer and longer periods than we originally anticipated. This is for safety, yes. It’s also because it’s drawing down their real estate costs substantially. One large Canadian telecom that I’m familiar with (hit the button if you know the right answer) has told its employees they’ll be staying home till 2021, and have moved their in-person workspaces to a dormant mode, like turning off the lights and heat.

So in the case of sending employees to present or attend conferences, that’s off the table too. Yes, because of COVID-19, but also because COVID-19 has cost businesses a lot of money, and they have to find ways to make it save them money too.

2) COVID-19 genuinely does change the experience

What makes a trade show or conference great? Great content. So that probably means flying in some top-notch keynote speakers. Not as easy these days. Great networking. Which is now a lot more difficult to do if you are wearing a mask, not comfortable shaking hands, and not sure if it’s cool to trade business cards without immediately using hand sani after. What about the perks, like coffee and muffins or lunch? Do YOU want to pull a muffin off a plate of communal pastries right now? More like communicable pastries.

Basically, all of the things that make a conference or a trade show a vital, exciting, useful experience is in some way hindered by COVID-19. It makes it pretty difficult to justify the expense.

3) Tastes are changing

This is a pre-COVID thing. The conference I mentioned at the top of this article has been suffering for attendance for the past few years. We’ve noticed fewer exhibitors, and fewer attendees. In fact, last year it seemed like many or most of the attendees were students from local engineering programs hoping to network to find jobs. Locally here in Alberta, this is definitely a recession thing.

But more widely, I’ve been seeing “mass” connection becoming less palatable to people. Professionals are certainly less enthusiastic about the Facebook and LinkedIn platforms specifically. Long before COVID-19, there was a drop in corporate parties, breakfasts and lunches.

The Audience is Exhausted

I don’t really have an explanation. Maybe we’re exhausted by the firehose of information and people we are exposed to all the time, who knows? The experience of registering for something, driving somewhere and then parking, blah blah, is always so effing complicated now. And we’re all totally available all the time, so no one can escape their Slack/Texts/Emails and just enjoy the damn thing.

Online is okay, because we can attend in our pyjamas with our coffee just how we like it, and we don’t have to find a parking spot. However in those cases you get the content, but you miss the networking and connection entirely. So it isn’t truly a trade show or a conference experience.

How do People Want to Connect Now?

Even before COVID-19, I feel like audiences have “attendance fatigue.” By this I mean, I feel like many people don’t want to attend another fucking thing. It could be a free chocolate fountain and foot massage night, if it means they have to get in the car again and be engaged again they just aren’t up for it.

At the same time, so many people I talk to are really interested in low stakes, authentic, one-on-one connections.

So what can you do?

To me, this is important takeaway information for clients who are looking to do the kind of networking and marketing formerly done on a mass scale, whether that’s at an in-person trade show or conference, on traditional mass media, or on social media.

My advice is to take that mass attempt at connection and turn it into meaningful one-on-one connections wherever you can.

Here are some ways I like to do that:

  • Change how you email your list

    Email marketing is my JAAAAM. I like to really nerd out and break down email lists by specific audiences of who opens what emails, and then I can use different content and even different styles of writing for each email so people are getting content that they really WANT in their inbox. And then they actually click, and then they write back, and then they buy stuff. It is as valuable as a trade show, but I can do it in my pyjamas like an online trade show.

  • Comment on social media

    Okay so first of all Facebook and Instagram can kiss my ass forever and ever because they don’t do a damn thing to help small businesses. They are actively, purposely hiding the posts of your favourite local business from their audience, because they want those businesses to buy ads. So if you see a post from a local business you like COMMENT ON THAT POST. If you comment on the post, that is called engagement, and the FB/IG gods reward engagement. (imma do a whole post on this) Conversely as a business owner, you should also comment on the posts of other people and businesses, not only for your own comment karma, but because it is…you guessed it…networking! I’ve built so many lovely relationships like this, and many many of them have turned into sales or referrals.

  • Ask for Reviews and Referrals

    If the post-COVID world is going to strip us of networking opportunities, we have to leverage the relationships we already have, TO.THE.MAX. Something that has been keeping me very very busy lately is reaching out to my clients’ clients to ask for reviews and referrals. We’ve developed a really good referral request package that has sparked some great connections. We’ve also developed a smooth way to get successful interactions to turn into reviews, and then to ask people who’ve left positive reviews to agree to do testimonial videos. When people feel like their opinion is *that* valuable to you, they’re far more likely to refer you to friends and family.

Make money 

I’m not a fancy agency that can brag about having Starbucks and McDonalds as clients. I’m a tiny little shop, and my chosen (and beloved) niche is small business. I can’t make money unless I can show my clients how my services pay for themselves. Our first conversation is about cash: what I cost, and what I bring in.

All of these personal one-on-one marketing methods can hardly be called marketing at all. They’re so humble that many times we don’t even think to do it. But they’ve been more successful for me than any PR campaign, or conference ever has been when it comes to actually bringing in money. Right now, they’re all we’ve got, so why not give one-on-one marketing a try?