Online trade fairs: What do they really have to offer compared to the classic trade fair?

Particularly in the B2B sector, trade fairs are a central element in the marketing mix and an absolute highlight in the marketing year. However, the year 2020 has significantly changed the annual trade fair schedule. From one day to the next, all trade fairs were canceled one after the other, and the shock was deep-seated: How should things continue? Suddenly, the personal approach, the opportunity to get to know each other better, the face-to-face meetings, and the exciting feeling of attending a trade show were all gone.

Like many other industries, trade show organizers had to look around for alternatives to, at least, prevent the complete disappearance of their business. They quickly found a solution: Transferring the classic trade fairs to the virtual world.

Online trade fairs - an ( almost ) new medium

Hybrid trade fairs

Virtual trade fairs have not only been available to trade fair visitors since the Coronavirus outbreak. Even before that, there were hybrid trade fairs, a combination of classic and virtual trade fairs. For example, the organizers allowed exhibitors to make content about their trade show attendance available on a digital platform both before and after the actual trade show. Detailed information could then be obtained not only in classic printed form at the stand but also via a mouse click.

By combining the two formats, the company expected to reach even more interested parties and provide them with the relevant documents.

Virtual trade fairs

Certainly, hybrid trade shows are not even an option during the lockdown. For this reason, a large number of the classic trade fairs had to be transferred entirely to virtual space. Using personalized avatars, visitors can navigate their way through the virtual trade show site. Personal interaction is simulated by individual chats, networking lounges, or even web sessions to bring a downsized trade fair experience into the virtual space as well.

Recorded presentations, live webinars, and an online library are additional communication tools that complement the virtual trade show experience. There are almost no limits for the participating companies. Both in the mix of communication channels and in the design of the online trade show booth, a variety of tools are available to stand out in the virtual space as well. Who would not want to seize the opportunity and shine as an innovative company and pioneer in digitization?

Digital in-house trade shows

Many companies we work with have taken advantage of the slump in trade show business to readjust their strategy in this field and rely on other communication tools.

Instead of making content and virtual offerings available in the open framework of an online trade show, they organized digital in-house trade shows. The instruments of the virtual in-house exhibition correspond to those of the regular virtual trade fair. However, the focus here is really exclusively on the exhibition itself in order to reduce the risk of participants being tempted to leave with the competition.

Despite all openness to new things: skepticism remains

Thanks to snapADDY VisitReport, our digital trade fair solution for recording customer data and meeting notes, we are in contact with many customers regarding trade fairs: From a trade show booth in a startup lounge to an industry giant planning a flagship trade show appearance with up to 1,000m² of exhibition space. However, the skepticism towards online formats is a common characteristic of most of our customers. Can a digital exchange represent the conventional trade show business?

The crucial question: to attend or not to attend under all circumstances?

When switching from physical trade fairs to digital trade fairs, companies are faced with the question: Is it necessary to have a digital presence at online trade fairs? After all, all companies that ask themselves this question already have an online presence: Their website!

Visitors can also access information here and, in most cases, virtual assistants also directly assist them with the information they need or forward them directly to the right expert. Think about how important it is for you to be present at a leading digital trade fair. Of course, it's always about seeing and being seen. But is it worth the one-time effort? Or could the same resources and investments not also be put into your current website? There are many possibilities to get the click on the company's website more interactive. For example, subscription links can be used to schedule individual meetings with sales staff – which are much more interesting and informative for visitors than pre-prepared workshops.

But from the visitor's point of view, the question also arises as to whether a virtual trade fair visit makes sense. Of course, visitors will also set up a digital "schedule" to obtain relevant information from interesting contacts. But is it worth dealing with the new format of a virtual trade show and getting familiar with the digital space when I can access the same material in the traditional and already well-known way via a website?

People and trade shows thrive on social interactions

Even though companies have a colorful smorgasbord of ways to make contact at digital trade shows, the social aspect falls entirely by the wayside. Quite honestly, a face-to-face conversation cannot be replaced by even the most interactive live chat.

Emotions and familiarity in the trade show meetings are omitted, which so often have the decisive influence on the successful result of a conversation. Although the organizers make every effort to compensate for this shortcoming, the alternatives offered remain quite unusual for the user.

Networking in chat rooms, which often don't have the appropriate conversation starters, is not a suitable substitute for making new and interesting contacts, even for the most practiced salesperson. Indeed, if necessary, they can be carried out in a much more targeted and efficient manner in business networks, which can draw on years of experience in this area.

The feedback received from our customers is also rather mixed. Virtual trade shows, for example, are more of an unloved stopgap than a genuine replacement for the face-to-face trade show. Instead, they see the future in hybrid formats – they do not see a shift away from the classic trade show business toward digital trade shows. The trade show remains one of the most influential communication media for companies, and its return is eagerly awaited.

Online trade shows closely examinated

We have not conducted any internal statistics regarding the acceptance of online trade fairs among our customers, but what our gut feeling already indicates is also reflected in the German dfv trade fair study "Trade fair business in times of Coronavirus." Only about 10% of the marketing managers surveyed consider virtual trade fairs to be a real alternative to presence trade fairs. For many, the virtual trade show medium does not yet appear to be sufficiently developed to establish itself in the marketing mix in the long term. A good two-thirds of those surveyed do not consider online trade shows to be a suitable marketing tool.

How and when the classic trade fairs start again is still unclear. Until then, numerous digital trade fairs will still be held and their acceptance among visitors and exhibitors will also increase. However, according to marketing managers, online formats will hardly compete with the significance of face-to-face trade shows. The only certain thing is that sooner or later we will all meet again in exhibition halls – we are definitely looking forward to it again!