COVID-19’s Impact on Trade Shows

For those of us in the tech industry, we know that the biggest telecom industry event was canceled recently due to the COVID-19 outbreak. MWC wisely canceled the show, given the concerns of this virus and our lack of understanding of how it spreads.

I had the privilege of helping run the largest CRM show in the US from 1993 to 2003 and understand the ramifications of having to cancel a show. It is costly for both the show management and many of the trade show vendors and disruptive for the thousands of people had scheduled to be at these shows.

I was also on the Comdex board of advisors for 17 years and the CES advisory board for 10 years and understand their importance and why they exist. One-to-one meetings and the ability to view products and get demos in one place, play a big role in why some shows like CES, MWC, IFA, etc are still going strong, even today.

Other tech shows since then have been canceled and one of the next big tech shows, Computex in Taiwan in June, could move to Sept as they did during the SARS outbreak. That is not firm yet but a possibility if the Corona Virus is not contained soon.

Other shows for this spring are also in question and show organizers are monitoring the spread of this virus closely. While I have no doubt that big trade shows and conferences will continue to be important in the future, the rapid spread of the Corona Virus and our lack of understanding of how it can spread, maybe a watershed moment for trade shows as well as how we work in the future.

Given that I have connections to major trade shows and conference organizers, I reached out to three of them to get their take on the future of trade shows and conferences. Since these people are still producers and promoters of big shows and conferences, they still believe that these types of events are important and will continue. However, they are watching what is happening with the COVID-19 carefully and monitoring one particular aspect of how vendors are dealing with a show cancellation and finding different ways to launch products and show of their products in light of not having a trade show or conference to use for this purpose.

For really big companies, many have already moved to do product launches in dedicated company-sponsored venues already. For the last 10 years, Apple has mostly done its own events to launch products and Samsung has followed suit by launching their UnPacked events to introduce their new smartphones and other new mobile-related products. While Apple does not do trade shows anymore, Samsung still attends CES, MWC and sometimes has big booths at IFA.

For very big companies with a lot of marketing dollars, doing their own events makes sense. But for others, they are finding alternative ways to get their message out without having to attend trade shows or conferences. For example, this week Qualcomm held a media event in San Diego to deliver what would have been their keynote address at MWC. They hastily brought media to their San Diego HQ and then posted the event live all over the world. While they did not have the booth experience for customers who could have visited them at MWC, their launch this way was just as effective.

All of the three trade show execs I talked to said that the role of technology to provide virtual media events is one of the things that really concerns them. Samsung, Huawei, Apple, and others are perfecting this means of using real-time video events to launch products and get there message out to millions of people, instead of just sharing with smaller audiences at trade shows.

They know that there will still be people who need to go to trade shows and conferences for networking, hands-on experiences, etc. However, all three believe that the COVID-19 issue could push more and more companies, especially the big ones that are the lifeblood of most of these shows, to test out the role technology can play to do more of their launches virtually, which could in turn, have them reduce their presence at any given trade show or conference.

In yesterday’s Think.tank piece, Ben talked about the Corona Virus’s impact on remote working. Here is one key point he stated that is relevant to this conversation-

“As companies are limiting travel to key countries, and China, in particular, teams are working together in those countries are not going to stop working together. Rather they will adopt new means to collaborate still and function as a team, and video meetings are what everyone is now rapidly adopting whether they were ready or not.”

His piece focused on another aspect of this virus’s impact which is on remote working. But this underscores that by forcing people to not travel during this virus outbreak, they are finding new ways to communicate and collaborate with colleagues and using things like Zoom to serve as the communication medium to accomplish these work goals.

The execs I talked to from the trade shows say that this is another area they are monitoring closely. As network speeds increase and video conferencing becomes so easy, meeting with company reps via video instead of having to go and meet them at trade shows and conferences, could become more preferable.

Their fear is that companies who find “workarounds” to getting their marketing messages out without a trade show, along with individuals using video conferencing to meet with company reps without going to a trade show or conference for a meeting, could have a big impact on the future of trade shows and conferences.

While they don’t see trade shows and conferences going away completely, they admit that we could see the big shows scaled back if large vendors find other ways to get their marketing and sales messages out virtually and scale back any trade show presence in the future. We already saw some of this at CES this year when Microsoft, Intel, and Qualcomm, who for decades had large booths, pulled out of the CES show floor and only had private suites instead.

It is way to early to suggest the demise of trade shows and conferences. But the Corona Virus has brought to the forefront for many companies a need to find other ways to launch products and for those who attend these events to find new ways to interact with companies they deal with virtually instead of traveling to dedicated events.

What I do think is that over the next few years, the role of technology to deliver more virtual trade shows and conferences spurred on not only by the current Corona Virus issue but others that could follow, and see many trade shows downsized. They could also become more vertically focused and see individuals become more comfortable with virtual meetings as an option to going to big events in the future.

Published by

Tim Bajarin

Tim Bajarin is the President of Creative Strategies, Inc. He is recognized as one of the leading industry consultants, analysts and futurists covering the field of personal computers and consumer technology. Mr. Bajarin has been with Creative Strategies since 1981 and has served as a consultant to most of the leading hardware and software vendors in the industry including IBM, Apple, Xerox, Compaq, Dell, AT&T, Microsoft, Polaroid, Lotus, Epson, Toshiba and numerous others.

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