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Is the Large National Trade Show Dead in the Digital Age?

by | Jun 15, 2011

Our firm is in the process of exhibiting at what has traditionally been a very good annual trade show in one of our key industries (imaging) (show name withheld to protect the ghost town). We’ve always received plenty of leads at the show, most if not all of our competitors also attended, and there was a positive vibe of energy and friendly corporate competition and goodwill present. Not this year!

Granted, the floor space (footprint) of the exposition space taken in the hall has been shrinking a little over the years – what with the economic impact of the recent economy. But this year we’ve seen a precipitous drop in booth traffic – so much so that some of the day-tripper people we usually send to walk the floor and experience the show – were canceled this year. So, I’m wondering, in this digital age where we’re so used to getting everything via screened devices, frequently held directly in our hands, is the traditional trade show dead?

We’ve been reassessing our presence at large national trade shows for some time now – preferring instead to focus on smaller more cost-effective regional conferences and seminars. We find these to be more targeted with a greater opportunity to get more quality time with customers and prospects. Many of these venues are ‘road show’ types of engagements – providing the opportunity to travel from one city to another to present to people regionally through one show series. Frequently we find that professionals we’ve met with wouldn’t have taken the time and expense to travel to a national show, but will take an afternoon to travel to a local conference and seminar.

These days it seems that the Webinar has taken over as a way to get an audience together instead of a large in-person gathering. And why not, online webinars are much cheaper and easier to prepare for than trade shows – and may be attended from the convenience of one’s office or conference room. Personally, I sign up for these online seminars all the time – now attending – that’s another thing! Frequently, other priorities take precedence, so I probably actually attend only about 25% of the time. (On average about half of attendees that sign up, show up).

So what’s the best way to get to your target audience? If large show attendance is down, people only attend webinars at about half the sign-up rate (which can still be very good) and road shows – while a good way to get in front of people – involve a lot of travel and logistics and therefore some expense? The right answer is still some combination of all of these – budget permitting of course. But large shows really need to be carefully vetted – with data such as attendee number and types, show outreach options and show and travel costs carefully taken into consideration.

On a final note regarding large national trade shows – anyone remember Comdex?