If you had asked me in January where I thought we would be in the middle of 2020, I probably would have said in the midst of a booming trade show season, networking face-to-face with an assortment of suppliers and buyers (not to mention trying all the newest products on the market!). At the beginning of the year, the value of the U.S. B2B trade show industry was expected to reach $16.4 billion in 2020. Fast forward to June, and here we are in the middle of a global pandemic, a reality that none of us would have expected or planned for. 

Trade shows, and other events, across the world have been canceled due to the ongoing COVID-19 virus. The consumer packaged goods (CPG) industry has been especially affected as trade show season is what can help make or break a brand’s connection with retailers. Since there is not a clear end in sight as to when people will have the opportunity to be face-to-face with other brands and buyers, I have to wonder, where does that leave the state of the trade show industry, and what can we expect for its future?

It’s safe to say that the demand for an in-person meeting will never disappear. While several states in the U.S. are beginning to reopen businesses, the thought of going to a large and crowded event can seem daunting to some. According to retail expert and Business of Home columnist, Warren Shoulberg, independent specialty stores are the most vulnerable right now—it’ll be toughest for them to miss these shows, but also more difficult for many of them to muster the cash reserves to place orders after so many weeks of being closed for business. While of course I would love to have the freedom to leisurely walk through a trade show, try samples, meet new people and not worry about what that could mean for my health and those around me, unfortunately, we don’t live in that world anymore. The reality of the situation is that we will all have to come to terms with our new normal. 

What would a new normal look like at trade shows? 

To start, greetings will change to avoid unnecessary contact, such as handshakes, which may just become the new norm. Shaking hands will be a hard habit to break, but you can always play it by ear and pay attention to how the guest greets you if you’re ever in a situation where you don’t know how to greet a visitor at your booth. If they don’t reach out for a handshake, leave it at that and know that both sides are in agreement and understanding of the situation. To some though, this can seem like not enough to get them to feel safe while attending an in-person event. 

Hand sanitation stations will become an absolute must, not that we haven’t seen this already. Having hand sanitizing stations in between booths, hallways, bathrooms, and anywhere else that is easily accessible will help attendees maintain guidelines. Exhibitors at these shows should also have hand sanitizer available so attendees can safely move from booth to booth without having to worry about finding the nearest station. 

Experiences at the booth will become more personalized. Those that have attended a trade show in the past know that swarms of people can occupy your booth at one time. The new normal that we will experience will help these brands be able to cater to individual booth occupants. In an ideal world, brands want to talk to each and every person that comes to their booth because every connection is one more person to be exposed to the brand. That ideal world can now possibly come to fruition. Brands will have to be more careful as to how many people they entertain at one time, and that will give them more opportunities to tailor each meeting with specific needs. 

Technology will certainly play an influential role in trade shows and how they are facilitated. During this time at home, trade show organizations have already begun to utilize more digital practices to accommodate their audience. Several countries have implemented body temperature scanners in their airports in order to identify if someone has an elevated body temperature. This practice could also make its way to convention centers to recognize those that might be at risk. Reserving a timeframe with a brand or the trade show organization could also help with crowd control and help keep aisle space clear and less crowded, while also help brands maintain who they will be speaking to and what kind of preparations they might need to have. 

Interactive experiences are commonplace in trade show exhibits these days. Tools like badge scanners, tablet kiosks, and customized apps have changed the way we interact with attendees. But this is only the tip of the iceberg in how technology can become an asset during a post-pandemic show. You could say that one plus side of having the trade show season canceled this year is that businesses were able to save money on the in-person experience and reinvest elsewhere. A lot of brands have begun to make the switch to incorporate more virtual technology somewhere into their business using funds that would have been spent at trade shows. 

We don’t fully know what to expect in 2021 when it comes to how trade shows will be facilitated. But to start, adjusting to new normals for in-person events will happen over time. While brands wait to see what’s to come, staying up to date with new digital practices will keep your brand current and ready for whatever changes trade show organizations decide to make post-pandemic. 

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