Mastering international trade fairs - physically, digitally or hybrid

International trade fairs offer companies from various industries the opportunity to present their products and establish business contacts. However, most trade fairs have been canceled or conducted digitally due to the coronavirus pandemic - which has created a whole new set of challenges for show organizers and exhibitors. As part of the "Digital Export Dialogue" event organized by the Basel Chamber of Commerce, Bettina Thomas, Head of Trade Fairs at Switzerland Global Enterprise, has highlighted the influence that the pandemic has had on the trade fair world, as well as the opportunities and challenges of physical, digital and hybrid trade fairs and current trends.

Virtual Trade Fair

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, many trade fairs were canceled, postponed, or conducted digitally between March 2020 and summer 2021. This posed major challenges, for both the trade show organizers as well as the exhibitors. They have had to respond quickly to the changing environment with new offers and formats, although digital business is not usually their core business. Many digital and virtual platforms have been launched as trade fair replacements. However, these are not suitable for all industries to the same extent. A digital biotech trade fair that focuses on conversations and one-to-one exchanges can work just as well digitally. A trade fair for foodstuffs or textiles, on the other hand, is less suited to the digital format. You want to be able to feel, smell and touch the products or fabrics. Capital goods are also less suitable for a virtual presentation. They often deal with large sums of money, and complex, large purchases. Such business cannot simply be conducted virtually. 

Digital trade fairs - advantages and limitations
The past few months have impressively demonstrated the advantages of digital trade fairs, and also where they reach their limits. The benefits clearly include time and cost savings. It is possible to participate in several events at the same time or to work on the side. Travel time and travel costs are avoided. Another advantage is the extensive reach that can be achieved with digital formats. You can reach target groups that would otherwise have been unreachable - for example, participants from China at a digital trade fair in Germany who would not have traveled all the way to Germany for one day. Something else of great value is that exhibitors learn more about their customers and their needs, thanks to tracking. 
Digital formats reach their limits, however, when it comes to establishing personal contact and trust. This is really difficult without physical meetings. The shared experience is missing; chance meetings and informal, spontaneous networking are not possible - for example, the beer at the end of the working day, or chatting together over a coffee. Product presentations are also not possible to the fullest extent. Something else that is also more challenging in the digital world is the customer approach. Visitors must first be found and encouraged to interact. Exhibitors are dependent on visitors approaching them, getting in touch with them via chat, for example. It's quite different at a physical trade fair: Exhibitors can stand at the booth or step out into the aisle and get talking to passers-by.

The trade fair of the future
“The trade fair format of the future will be hybrid," says Bettina Thomas, Head of Trade Fairs at Switzerland Global Enterprise, with total conviction. "The best of the physical and digital worlds will be combined and merged into a total experience." For example, on-site physical booths and live virtual trade fair tours for attendees who are unable to travel. Or tools such as apps that help visitors find their way around the physical trade fair site, and online "matchmaking" platforms that enable virtual and physical contact between visitors. Digital options for workshops and training courses are also being used increasingly. What's more, exhibitors can have a year-round presence on the trade fair organizer's online platform. This not only leads to more visibility for exhibitors, but also allows them to be in touch with their community throughout the year. "We have also responded to the changing environment and developed the Virtual SWISS Pavilion, where Swiss exhibitors and visitors from around the world can meet to exchange ideas and showcase new products, services and trends," says Bettina Thomas.

Current opportunities and challenges
Digital trade fairs offer organizers not only greater reach, access to new target groups, the opportunity to participate despite travel restrictions, and savings in on-site resources, but also year-round visibility in the community. However, if companies want to process all channels seriously, the time required should not be underestimated. In addition to this, hybrid events require new concepts and different skills. Digital content must be prepared differently than a trade fair booth or stand. And employees on site cannot present the digital part at the same time. Time needs to be specifically set aside for this task. The time difference must also be taken into account, as well as the changes in trade fair logistics due to the pandemic. On certain transport routes the demand is greater than what the freight forwarders can provide. This not only means longer lead times and earlier planning, but also higher prices. 

Trends in the changing world of trade fairs
"We are seeing a decline in globalization in the trade fair world," say Bettina Thomas. Instead of leading global trade fairs, prominent continental or currently even regional trade fairs are being planned on an increasing level. Instead of an annual meeting in one place in the world, people now tend to meet three times a year on different continents. And the digitization megatrend does not stop at trade fairs, as described above. Because increased attention is also being paid to sustainability. Another trend is the "experience orientation" at trade fairs. "That doesn't mean the Oktoberfest has to be copied for trade fairs, but visitors do want to experience a pleasant event. They want to be able to work undisturbed and enjoy a good coffee in a nice lounge with working WiFi access, both before and after their tour of the trade fair. It's small but important things that make attending the trade fair an enjoyment." Trade fairs are also increasingly evolving, away from pure product shows towards dialog platforms. Not only do the exhibitors want to get in touch with the visitors, but the visitors also want to exchange ideas with one another. That is why matchmaking and corresponding platforms are becoming more and more important. Often smaller spaces are booked and companies travel with fewer staff, as specialists can also be called in virtually.


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