Modern trade shows may have been forced to time travel to the future by the Coronavirus pandemic
By John Russel Jones
Before the COVID-19 pandemic changed the way we do just about everything in the modern business world, many textile trade shows were already experimenting with the ways that technology could complement their programming, engage audiences, and extend the selling season. Lockdowns, quarantines, and business closures forced these companies to cancel in-person events; accelerating and amplifying online, virtual programming to sustain not only their own businesses, but those of their exhibitors.
While an existing digital infrastructure was helpful in quickly and efficiently bringing these virtual trade events to the market, it’s been important to not only create a secure marketplace for trade, but—in these days of isolation—a friendly environment for learning, networking, and socializing. While the virus may have been a harsh mother of invention, the lessons learned in the past year are providing the foundation upon which trade shows will be built going forward.
A Solid Platform
Fashion textile and materials show Première Vision, for instance, had already anticipated a move towards a digital adjunct to its international suite of shows.
“Before COVID our concern was how to adapt to the changing fashion calendar,” says International Exhibitions Director Guglielmo Olearo. “The industry was moving from having two to four to 52 collections a year,” he quips. “We needed to adapt to fit the industry’s needs but were also feeling pressure from exhibitors with limited show budgets.”
Première Vision already had a corporate website with news and trend content, but two years ago it launched Marketplace, it’s B2B ecommerce platform.
“At first we met some resistance from exhibitors who were concerned about their designs being copied on the website; even having the confidence that samples were being sent to the right person. When COVID came around, our system was well-established,” says Olearo. “We had the ability to do meetings online; offering the ability to exchange ideas in a safe, secure environment. We said, already we have a digital reputation: Let’s create a digital event where we can offer content and a live exchange of ideas, fostering interaction.”
World Textile Information Network’s (WTiN) Managing Director Mark Jarvis concurs. Before COVID, he’d recognized that things were beginning to change with trade shows in terms of budgets for travel, etc.
“I could see that some of the shows were still being very well attended, but COVID presented the opportunity to prove whether digital events can deliver for both visitors and exhibitors,” he says.
His organization launched its very first trade show during the pandemic in October 2020. Innovate Textile and Apparel’s debut (a show highlighting innovation in technology and machinery for manufacturing, as well as materials) was, by necessity, a virtual event. Jarvis’s research showed that generating a sales lead at a live exhibition (discounting corporate branding and other benefits of showing), could cost as much as US$2,000 per lead.
“We built our own platform from the start,” says WTiN’s Jarvis. “We looked at several off-the-shelf versions and decided that none of them could give us what we wanted. Besides, all of them were suddenly incredibly busy, so we knew we’d never get the customer support bandwidth. We’d already been using machine learning for our websites to deliver valuable content, so we had the resources to build it ourselves.”
The Industrial Fabrics Association International (IFAI) would have been hosting its 100th show in 2020: the 116-year-old company has only taken breaks for World Wars I and II; and now for the pandemic, according to Director of Events and Member Programs Linden Wicklund.
“If your product isn’t changing, it will age out,” says Wicklund. “I don’t think trade shows are currently under duress, but the supply chain is changing, so the platform has to evolve. In the 1980s and ‘90s there was a lot of consolidation, then e-commerce changed things even further; particularly with regionally-focused businesses. We’ve already been doing webinars for five years and have robust publication websites: we have 24 different sites to meet different markets. We offer a connection point for our members, building a network and bringing experts together.”
Evolution in Action
Since IFAI already had an underlying infrastructure, it was relatively easy for the company to adapt to a virtual format. In November, the show was accessed via a virtual exhibit hall, complete with banners and booths. Wicklund pointed out that the show had always had a focus on education, offering more than sixty sessions per event. That continued at the company’s November 2020 virtual experience, in a variety of forms, but the new format allowed for some engaging twists: IFAI CEO Steve Schiffman, for example, greeted attendees from a prominently featured banner in the space. Beyond the realistic graphic element, exhibitors were provided with customizable virtual reality spaces where visitors could interact with exhibitor staff via chat rooms with one-on-one videos. Attendees could also drop off virtual business cards or chat with fellow guests.
The IFAI further created a sense of community by creating virtual versions of some of its popular real-world features including a 5K run, where participants could compete from home. The show traditionally partners with a shelter to host a puppy petting booth—a great way to take a break and de-stress during a hectic show schedule: this season that was accomplished with a puppy and kitten live feed. (Editor’s Note: I happened to check out the feed when a beautiful Black Labrador was nursing her puppies, which provided an uplifting and affirming lift to my busy, isolated day.)
Post-show, WTiN’s Jarvis reported 170 exhibitors and 7,000 visitors, and an exhibitor survey showed that the average cost of generating a sales lead was €32 (around US$42), “compared to the thousands of dollars of a brick and mortar show.”
“Although there were, of course, a few technical issues, exhibitors tolerated them given that it’s a new platform,” says Jarvis. “We will have almost a completely new platform by this time next year.”
“The first thing we learned was that visitors want, even need live content. The same is true when they go to an exhibitor’s booth. They want to attend a seminar presentation live so they can ask questions. Exhibitors want to make live demonstrations from their headquarters or wherever they have their machinery. They also learned that doing business virtually was different and had to give some thought to the content they were going to share. Rather than having 30 brochures for all their different products that they might offer at a regular show, they might condense into three. Keep it simple, so that it’s not difficult for the visitors to find the information that they want.”
Jarvis also suspects that the event went too long at 15 days. “Visitors started to lose interest, and the exhibitors got tired, so we ended up with a long tail with very little activity. Next year will be five days near the end of October.”
Human Interaction is Key
While we can now more clearly visualize life in a post-COVID world, there is no evading the fact that the pandemic has changed the way we live, work, and interact with each other. The modern trade show experience was moving to a digital presence anyway, creating opportunities to be more global while expanding the sales calendar, all with a keen eye on profitability. The key will be maintaining human interaction at all costs, whether actual or virtual.
About the author
John Russel Jones is a Jersey City, NJ, USA based writer who enjoys covering design in all its forms, from fashion to architecture, interiors, and textiles. When he’s not herding cats with his husband, he’s training for his next Tough Mudder or hanging out in St. Augustine, FL, the USA’s oldest city. He’s on all the socials: @JohnRusselJones