Ep. 44 The Future of Trade Shows


APR. 15, 2021


Welcome to episode 44, The Future of Tradeshows. Like you, I’ve watched large conference and trade organizations create online events to partially replace revenue lost and stay relevant during the pandemicWhat I’ve noticed is how the priority has moved away from ‘showcasing’ brands to retailers and more toward facilitating digital ‘meetings and education for a variety of stakeholders.  


One power of digital media is that it can more easily level the playing field when it comes to accessing experts and other ‘Illuminati’ in your field. I mean look at Twitter. If experts and celebs make themselves available online, it’s a lot easier to get to them in a digital event, than if you try to stand in that awkward post-speech line-up at a conference, which is skewed towards super aggressive people or extrovertsI mean, after a live speech, at any time, the speaker is socially permitted to just take off., even though there’s a line – Oh sorry, have a meeting. Yeah, right. Sure you do. You have a meeting with your descending colon in stall #9, dudeWhatever. 


Let’s look more closely at the trade shows we’ve been skipping since the pandemic began. I believe, folks, we have the perspective necessary to totally re-imagine these events. Not necessarily to get rid of them. The clues were present long before this pandemic, folksRewind your brain memory tapes and listen again to the grumblings you used to hear. What were they about? It’s within the grumblings that we can see how to reimagine these shows.  


Before COVID-19, the heart of the modern trade show was the booth and the theater of pitching retail buyers at it.  


One problem though, and it’s a huge one for entrepreneurs, is that, by sticking you and your team behind a booth basically all day, you become captive to endless prowling from agencies, vendors, brokers, consultants and people you have NO desire to meet right then. The amount of social noise orthogonal to your purpose was honestly out of control at shows like Expo West. 


Really, at the margins of the booth-theater, were the talks, workshops, even the odd business schools, etc. These are often sold as add-ons to upsell you, and even upsell booth buyers who had already paid 30,000. That really gets me. But these were never even really the primary purpose around which event schedules, etc. were designed. 


In fact, may trade shows actively proscribe, pro-prevent, sponsored even workshops and formal meetings in their meeting spaces during floor hours, to focus all bodies on the booth theater. This basically eliminated the most productive hours of the day for formal, sponsored education and networking events, which were always poorly attended (with one or two exceptions). 


In a pandemic, we retract to the most necessary of objectives and tasks when it comes to social interaction face-to-faceSo what does a trade show event tap into that it truly necessary for ALL stakeholders in the CPG industry? Okay, this is a tough one, and I may not succeed, but here we go…


The face-to-face social bonding aspects of tradeshowsstand out to all of us, even the most pathological introverts like me, as the most irreplaceable feature of the trade show. But do we need after-parties and cocktail events to move our businesses forward? Really? I mean, how many warm relationships, honestly, become ‘hot’ after 10 minutes of cocktail chit-chat? None. How many cold relationships become warm at those eventsWell, a lot. But is it necessary to meet up face-to-face over booze to accomplish social warm-up? No, with 1080p video chat capabilities. Not anymore.  


And using trade shows to build awareness for your brand works, but it only matters if it is the most efficient way to build awareness given the enormous costs of having a boothBut, we know this isn’t true. Trade PR, LinkedIN, online events, cold emailing, and e-mail blasts can offer awareness building opportunities 24 hours a day. And basically for almost nothing. Wow. So guess what we’ve learned? 


Face-to-face communication we’ve now found out, is actually, really, truly irreplaceable for two things in business : 1) training reluctant humans in difficult skills that generate emotional resistance (i.e. avoidance) and require a theater of live social pressure2) making very high stakes decisions with weak social ties (i.e. requiring maximal trust verification and facial scanning)Let’s not pretend it’s less aggressive. I’ve done it. Many of you have done it. It’s all good people. As long as there is no cussing or violence.  


If we step back from these two usages of face-to-face communication in business, we see that the booth-theater of the modern trade show is way, way off-center. Like way. The modern booth at a packed trade show is NOT conducive to confidential, measured conversation and rapport building like I just described. It’s a theater of light flirtation at bestnothing more than wild sample hurling if your booth is busy. If it’s not busy, though, that would suggest a) you did not do enough pre-event marketing and b) your thing is of little interest or is already well known. In either case, why the hell are you at the show standing at an expensive booth?  


Most trade shows, folks, are no longer selling shows, where founders accumulate cute little, hard copy POs from small shops and go home patting their ‘stack. Honestly, this is a crazy expensive way to get your business started anyways. Nothing is stopping you from courting local specialty chains in your home city right away and getting POs. They buy local all the time. Why the hell would you pay $50K and up to stand at a booth and hope you can get the equivalent accomplished on either coast? And once your business IS started, 5 more little stores in Seattle add so little volume, it’s meaningless. Adding hundreds all over the place also adds remarkably little revenue once you hit seven figures.  


Trade shows put the retail trade in control. Not you. At the least the way there were traditionally set up. They were set up to make it easier for independent stores to find new products in one consolidated event. You, the founder, have to do a lot of pre-show prep to make a booth-centered show work for you, because you’re trapped behind the booth. LOL. You actually to do your own marketing campaign to invert the communications hierarchy of these shows, which puts the wandering buyer at the top of the pyramid. They can skip or linger as they see fit. You’re trapped behind your booth talking to some sad, balding graphic designer looking for work.  


What if trade shows morphed into truly ALL stakeholder events? 


To do this, they need to blow up the ridiculous booth theater and re-imagine it entirely. 


The booths benefit no one really, when I look at my field notes from over twenty shows I’ve attended in the last three years.  


For one thing, stop selling booths or sampling stations to startups with no PRIOR CPG experience. Instead, give this privilege away for free, or make up a formula to vet the serious folks (no part-time hobbyists). Everyone would prefer the latter. “Oh you made it into Expo West” “Wow. You have your shit together.”  


Segregate the companies into “Tracks” based on business performance so that EVERYONE knows how to spend their time best. Phase 1 brands do not need to have their time wasted being approached by branding agencies that charge a minimum of $18K for a website.  


The New Hope shows historically have been a temple to the insanely insincere, American pretense that ‘all brands are equal’ under the cultish tent of natural. Come on. The reality is that there is creepy points hierarchy based on # shows attended for the optimal, high traffic space. Old brands, whether they perform or not, get the best spots. The fastest growing brands, if young, don’t. Hello? Rewarding loyalty to a cult?  


Introduce meaningful business KPI hierarchy instead of the ‘faux’ equality the booth pretends to offer. In actuality, the hierarchy still exists, you just waste time and money on a booth before you have any idea what you’re doing. 


For every time I suggest blowing up the booths, there are two people who trot out anecdotes about how they met the Whole Foods buyer at ExpoWest and my life was transformed. Yes, but did you agree to a deal at Expo? No. You agreed to a meeting later. There are better ways to get a meeting these days. Than pay $50K for it and waste an entire week standing at a booth 


This is especially true if you’re doing real category innovation, not the 38th granola brand hoping brand identity alone will carry you. The booth is NOT to going help you if you’re an incredibly late mover. Not better than the internet in 2021.  


I don’t have the entire event mapped out in my mind, but it would be centered on tracked networking and education based on business performance tier. That’s it.  


Sound completely insane? Let me know. I’d love to get your feedback on this. Send it to [email protected].


Take care folks. And remember, be safe out there.