The virtual trade show comes of age in 2020

The virtual trade show in 2020 has suddenly become a preferred option for many businesses. This article compares two recent shows to see the benefits of each type.

There has been a very recent shift from “on the floor” trade shows to virtual halls. This format has been around for years, but never really took off as a need until the recent pandemic. So does marketing at shows grind to a standstill now? I don’t think so; we need to give the hosts time to pivot and organize what to offer with a pricing structure.

For the recent SPIE DCS (Defense + Commercial Sensing) show, the organizers quickly created a digital forum with 600 presentations, 450 papers, and plenary speakers. Online attendance was free with registration. Five digital program tracks were offered and were accessible anytime after the scheduled presentation. Attendees had the option to watch live speakers or access the entire article post-date in the massive SPIE Digital Library.

What happens to our typical lead gen now? As the DCS show kept to a “normal” conference schedule, no leads other than knowing who had logged into the page to read or watch the proceedings were gathered. The option to purchase and download the presented information is available for groups.

Exhibitors were noticeably missing from the DCS event without the regular links to sponsorships, product and brand features, and lead generation. The typical floor activities on the trade side were absent from the schedule. 

SPIE is currently working on 20+ annual optics and photonics trade events planned worldwide each year. With life science and technology brands accelerating to keep up with orders for skin temperature screening cameras and testing equipment, it will be even more critical to source supply chain partners in 2020. If you are planning to exhibit or walk during 2020, the SPIE shows that are scheduled for the latter half of the year are still regular “on the floor” events.

Equestrian trade shows are another area that holds annual shows for distribution sales as well as highlighting seasonal trends. The bi-yearly AETA show is sticking to its original August dates for now at the Oaks, PA location. This, of course, may shift depending on the current state situation at the time of the event.

Pop-up online trade shows are a newer trend. The equestrian market just saw one of the first at the Virtual Equestrian Tradeshow in April. Created by Forest, Erin, and Allie from EQright and Herd of Zebras, the show offered deals and specials as well as live opportunities to meet vendors throughout the event week. With only a scant four weeks to pivot into a plan and website build, it was a huge success. Facebook and Instagram drove visitors to the new site with daily updates and live events.

“While driving sales to our vendors was the main goal of V.E.T., brand discovery was also a key goal of ours. We built out V.E.T. with the understanding that many shoppers may not be able to shop due to financial constraints, but we wanted them to discover brands that they can shop in the future when financial tensions ease. The story from the customer survey we sent out to subscribers is truly impressive.,” stated Erin at V.E.T.

When asked, “Were you able to discover any new brands that you liked and shopped/or will shop in the future?” 100% of shoppers answered, Yes.

“The amazing customer data, coupled with the strong vendor analytics, showed us that the virtual equestrian tradeshow concept works,” noted Erin.

As the test garnered an overwhelming amount of traffic and interest, the organizers determined to extend the show for a week to include more than 80 vendors. According to the V.E.T. group, by the first weekend, they had seen 3,000 shoppers and 6,200 shoppers by the following weekend. Vendors reported back with encouraging numbers as a result. 80% of vendors saw a site traffic increase of over 10%, and 25% of vendors saw site traffic growth of over 40%.

The website experience, in this case, was designed to encourage a “booth feel” online by offering variable templates for vendors to select and customize. Product images, lifestyle photos, videos, and testimonials were able to be utilized to differentiate brands as much as possible. The V.E.T. group tried to create an experience that would allow shoppers to make the stop and shop or walk on decision very much like a floor tradeshow. 

As all rated horse shows are also on hold through May of 2020, the financial hit seen by organizers and the supporting regions is genuine. Significant attendance events, such as the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day, which sees upwards of 20,000 shoppers on cross-country day alone, will not be able to pivot to a digital model. Smaller rated shows are holding off to later this year to determine whether to schedule judges and line up vendors. As these are highly popular events, if allowed to move forward, people will be taking advantage of opportunities to attend, shop, and enjoy the horse show experience again.

The benefits are clear regarding an all-digital show model. It supports smaller businesses, allowing them to collectively reach more people while creating immediate sales and brand awareness. As there are no travel, booth, or set up expenses around this type of showcase, small businesses can afford to attend and sell directly to end-users, as well as source distributor sales. These can be quickly and easily set up on social media when using a hashtag that encompasses the event and having each vendor use this throughout the dates of the show.

Larger businesses will likely see the value of testing and incorporating digital shows, so I expect to see them popping up over this year, especially before the holiday shopping season. For the B2B sector businesses, not adding to the spend from sending a full component of sales staff and shipping a booth to a floor show may prove enticing this year with an uncertain economy in play.

Virtual trade show software is seeing more interest than in the past. GoExhibitVFairs, and ez-expo all offer ways to host a show on your website, manage lead tracking, host chat forums, or customize exhibitor booth space. We will likely see more of these events taking place for product launches, job fairs, and university fairs than in past years. 

Drawbacks to virtual tradeshows are evident if you prefer in-person connections for shows. It’s challenging to beat the ability to make solid personal relationships with the people that use your products, to learn more about what interests them, and their needs for the future. The wining and dining option is off the table.

No doubt, we’ll see an eventual return to the floor-style trade show, but it will look and feel different with protocols in place to keep everyone healthy. A hearty handshake to seal the deal may be absent, which will feel alien to most salespeople. In the meantime, we’ll miss the energy that comes with attending a trade event and speaking to colleagues.

I’ll continue to observe all of these trends, as my clients need to plan accordingly, and I prefer to be proactive with changes such as these. Whether we see the full floor shows again by summer will be of interest to every group that needs to reach a highly targeted audience. Many will opt for a digital platform for more control and less expense this year. 

Amanda MacDonald

Amanda MacDonald

Founder of Full Gallop Communications

Amanda is a marketing veteran that works with businesses on improving brand communication, marketing strategy, and creating content marketing. When not in the office, Amanda can be found at the barn with her horse, walking her two dogs on Lake Ontario or baking something carbtastic in the oven.

Contact her at to inquire about how your marketing efforts can become more successful.

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