Before the curtain comes down, plans are already in the works for the next big event. However, what happens when a show is a few weeks away, and large conventions come to a screeching halt due to COVID-19? Should you cancel? Or, do you change direction because the show must go on? Ultimately, it’s a complicated problem with no simple solution.
The pandemic’s social impact will completely alter the way this industry holds trade shows and conventions in the future. Our buying behavior and how customers interact with products and process information in the virtual space and at large gatherings will be different. Trying something new can be both scary and challenging. However, it is the only way to reimagine how the industry will hold trade shows in the future.
Suppliers Share their Insights
Supplier representatives are away from home for months at a time visiting retail stores and traveling to conventions. The reps who endure, champion their products and build strong relationships with customers. Since they work closely with wholesalers and retailers, reps have a unique perspective on trade shows and how they interconnect everyone in the industry. Here are a few of their comments.
“The virtual shows were a learning experience for everyone. So, I don’t think one or two shows are a fair assessment of what the shows can become. I’m always open to new ideas, so I think the shows gave us a new platform that can be tweaked and improved. There was no ROI. I get that the industry was in a state of shock, and everyone was scared and didn’t know where we were going. With anything, it’s the way a company takes the product to their customers. It’s hard to get a response back from retailers in a virtual show. Viewing a sell sheet and a picture is not the same as seeing something in person.”
I’m an old-fashioned sales manager. I go into the stores, and I meet with everyone from the district manager to the salespeople. I’m successful in getting my product into the store 40 to 60 percent of the time. Savvy retailers think about what they need to open up a new category and look for products that drive incremental sales. In a real show, retailers walk the floor for a half-day looking for new stuff—then they get the necessities out of the way. When I go to a real show, I’m always walking the floor, meeting new people, and talking about our products. That’s what I like to do. I have a chance to speak to the retailers and the buyers and have in-depth discussions. I’ve already met some of the people earlier. I get a chance to maintain those relationships.”
Retailers are typically pretty busy. When people went online to order, they only bought the merchandise they needed; then they went back to tending their stores. They don’t have time to look items up. This tanked sales for new dropship offers and new products. Most drop-ships were for things retailers ordered previously. Retailers primarily logged on to get good deals. At a typical show, we sell 55 displays. We sold less than 15 at the virtual shows. I know 6 reps who sell for 13 companies—no retailers visited their booths, so they didn’t sell anything. About 60 percent of vendors are going to lose money as long as the shows are only virtual.
“I consider myself the ambassador who gets to tell my company’s story. The shows were terrible, but they were terrible for everyone.” They were last minute, and no one had time to plan. I know the next ones will be better than the ones before. The costs were all over the place—as low as $1,500 and as high as $7,000. I prefer the regular shows. I love meeting with retailers and doing little demos for our products. In a virtual show, you can’t take people on a journey and show them how much you care about what you do.
We’re growing and adapting, so we have to take a leap of faith. You have to try the virtual shows to figure it all out and succeed. I think the physical shows are too long, 1 to 2 days is plenty. Retailers have several weeks to review details about the products before they come to the show. When retailers arrive, they’re ready to come in and buy. They get a glimpse of everything and then go back home, or take a vacation. For me, there’s nothing like being at a show and talking to the retailers and merchants. You lose that contact with virtual shows.
The Best of Both World
The Next Generation of trade shows could be a hybrid of virtual and physical shows. Retailers currently receive “market books” and order forms weeks in advance of a physical show. By the time they arrive, retailers know what products they plan to buy, and what booths to visit. Some have already pre-ordered merchandise. Retailers are particularly interested in new products and drop ship offers. The opportunity to review products in advance is a step that makes the buying and selling process efficient and effective.
One suggestion is for suppliers to produce quick 3-to-4-minute videos for online tradeshows similar to what is currently on YouTube. Also, doing variations of Facebook Live is a possibility. Both options would require extending the dates for virtual shows to allow retailers time to review the videos or presentations by product category. Suppliers would have an opportunity to connect with retailers by engagingly discussing their products. Since deals are available for an extended time after the convention, this can be a workable solution.
Review Products by Category
Showcasing products by category on specific days is another recommendation. Perhaps Product Merchants could set the tone for the show by opening each session with a general discussion about consumer trends, new products, and hot deals. The retailers would then have an opportunity to review videos of products offered in this category. Since the booths are virtual, retailers unavailable on the “featured days” would have a chance to review the videos and order at a later time. Retail staff who manage specific product lines can review the categories for which they are responsible and manage the time they spend online more efficiently.
The physical show combined with virtual “mini-shows
Consider holding one big physical show every year combined with four virtual “mini-shows” that are seasonally relevant to spring and fall merchandise. Manufacturers would have an opportunity to showcase new items and innovations by category and share their perspectives with retailers. Additionally, this should significantly reduce costs, and improve the ROI for suppliers.
One-or-two-day physical shows
A few reps felt 3-to-4 days physical shows are too long and think retailers can get everything accomplished in one or two days. Retailers get materials to review products several weeks in advance of the show. Upon arriving, they walk the floor for a few days to get a glimpse of everything, then go on to buy. After two days, sales are slow, with hardly anything happening on the last day.
Come Together as a Community
Throughout these interviews, the most commonly heard words were “our community,” and the idea that we all need each other to succeed.
“The cost of the virtual shows is a tough pill to swallow. You can’t charge the same fees for a virtual show that you do for a physical show since the sales are not comparable. We were all in the hole, so we need to reevaluate everything. Now is the time to come together as a community to figure out what the shows should look like in the future.”
Source: Interviews were conducted by phone July 1-13 with the understanding that participants had the option to remain anonymous.