Are Trade Shows at a Crossroads?


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As of this writing, the COVID-19 outbreak is hitting new highs, with announcements of concert, sporting event, and other large gathering cancellations and postponements being announced almost hourly. The NBA and NHL have suspended their seasons, and some NASCAR races will be run without fans in the stands. Canceled trade shows continue as well, including the E3 show—the largest gaming event—scheduled for June in Los Angeles.

We all expect to get through this season of fear and disruption. In fact, I remember something similar with the polio epidemics in the summers of the early 1950s. Back then, however, everyone worked together; there was no political blaming, no social media posts, and staying home instead of going to the beach was accepted. Within a few years, things were under control, and a polio vaccine was announced. We all got immunized, and soon, polio was a thing of the past.

Now, we are well into a new century, with a new epidemic—one that might alter the landscape for trade shows and conferences forever. But we have options that we weren’t available then.

Take a step back to the early ‘90s. In this industry, we all exhibited at and/or attended regional trade shows. These shows included NEPCON East in New York and NEPCON West in California, as well as similar events in Europe and Japan that were must-attend events. Over the years, these shows became more expensive. Eventually, industry segments—such as PCB fabricators and their suppliers—rebelled, giving rise to shows such as IPC APEX EXPO. Over the last dozen or so years, however, the cost factor has again risen exponentially, and options such as digital streaming have become more robust and readily available.

With the cancellation of this year’s E3 show, the event’s format is shifting to a more fluid, online communication method. This may be the wave of the future. Can you imagine if the COVID-19 outbreak had occurred just three months earlier? Would there have been a Consumer Electronics Show, DesignCon, or IPC APEX EXPO? If the coronavirus is still in play in six months, will these shows take place in 2021?

The organizers of E3 plan to hold online streams to reach gamers, consumers, investors, and analysts directly. With this strategy, companies hit two targets with one shot. First, they avoid possible coronavirus exposure, and secondly—and most importantly—they keep costs down. All eyes are on E3.

These questions still remain. Will publishers and developers for e-gaming permanently pivot toward digital events instead of holding face-to-face shows and conferences? Will this trend spread to other industries? Will sports fans stream their teams’ games, perhaps using upcoming VR and XR technology?

It will depend on the numbers and some experimentation, but we can expect that this experimentation will continue and probably expand through much of the coming year if the coronavirus is not quelled. It is just possible that we may be seeing the start of a significant change in the way we attend, view, and even partake in industry, sporting, and social events.

Of course, there is another side of the coin. There are many benefits to being at an event for days, including communicating directly with your peers, and coming up with new ideas and partnerships that will enhance the future of your industry. Admittedly, there are pros and cons to in-person attendance, but I believe we are at a significant crossroads regarding trade shows and conferences.

As I often say, stay tuned!

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