Editor’s Letter – Trade Show Me the Money

In the early days of the Internet and IP communication services, much was said about disintermediation of value chains and displacement of longstanding business practices. In some cases, the prognosticators were spot on, with travel agents and record stores as early and oft-cited examples.

Other times, well, the future has come more slowly than expected. Take e-commerce, for example. Back in 1995, if someone would have posited that by 2015, online sales would account for less than 10 percent of total retail sales, the notion likely would have been cast aside. Yet that’s precisely where things stand, according to U.S. Department of Commerce figures, which show online sales accounting for about 7 percent of total retail sales. The brick-and-mortar “customer experience” has remained much more relevant than what might have been expected.

Years ago, conventional wisdom also was that video communications along with online collaboration technologies would make trade show travel less appealing. Some thought virtual trade shows would cut even deeper into attendance. Fast forward, and while trade events were not immune to the recent recession, B2B expos in total have seen no such declines. Attendance and square footage continue to grow, according to the Center for Exhibition Research, and attendance is forecast to continue to increase in 2015. The percentage of “first-time attendees” is as high as it’s been since 1998, according to Exhibit Surveys.

What’s more, trade shows, far and away, were most commonly cited by B2B marketers as generating both the “most” and “best” B2B leads, according to the latest B2B Demand Generation Benchmark report from SoftwareAdvice. It’s not for a lack of options. Eight out of 10 respondents use at least 11 different marketing software applications, and of the 15 demand generation channels listed, each was used by at least 85 percent of respondents.

Trade shows, not surprisingly, are also tops in terms of cost per lead. But unlike, say, social media marketing, which respondents view as very cheap but only mildly, if at all, effective, trade shows provide very consistent and predictable results. During the last 15 years,  trade show performance metrics (such as percentage of attendees planning to buy, traffic density, percentage of buying influencers, rate of first-time attendees, exhibitor recall, hours spent on exhibit floor, and meaningful engagement) have all remained healthy and consistent. Many sit near or above 15-year highs. B2B marketers apparently are satisfied with what they are getting for the cost.

Yet there’s a deeper, less quantifiable reason why B2B expos and events continue to be popular and productive, despite a prolific number of more slick and cost-effective options. A reason 1990s predictions might have missed. And it parallels with what retailers are discovering about e-commerce. Quite simply, people, by and large, innately like to get out and do things with other people.

If shopping was just about a search and transaction, done with maximum efficiency, then hitting the buy button on the couch wins out every time. In today’s culture, however, the shopping experience is about more than the acquisition of goods and services. Shopping, rather, can be an activity or a pastime, for some it’s even a hobby. Often, it’s a reason to get out of the house.

Similar to the retail storefront, trade shows give us that chance to touch and try on, experience the customer service first hand, interact with other humans, or at the very least, get out of the office. And most times you come back with what you came for. They’re also the chance to travel to big cities, dine with friends at nice restaurants, perhaps have a cocktail, and see new places and some familiar faces; all things humans like to do with other people.

It’s the things that will never be duplicated by a screen or hologram or the highest definition audio. And it’s why – despite the security lines and smelly cabs, hard beds and high resort fees – if we see you in Vegas or Miami or Orlando or Salt Lake, etc., during the next few months, it’ll be great to see you again.