• Larry Kulchawik

Evolution and Future of Trade Shows

By Larry Kulchawik


We all have experienced the devastation that Covid has created. It has changed our lives and our ways of doing things. One of the industries that covid hit particularly hard has been the meeting and convention industry-worldwide. All face to face activities came to a screeching halt for the past two years.


In the meantime, we leaned on and learned other ways to communicate for business face to face. Zoom and other digital means to communicate became our new tool to exchange ideas. Since trade shows and meetings stopped we experimented with virtual events with minimal success.


One thing that we learned, there is no substitute for human contact. Face to face contact unleashes EMOTION in a way that digitalization does not. This being said, we all must now open our eyes and embrace the many digital alternatives that are unfolding. Covid may have destroyed our sense of connection, but created an opportunity to innovate and reach new audiences. During the pandemic, we have all heard the phrase-Nothing will replace the power of face to face. Yes, it is still very powerful, but are we unintentionally limiting our sphere of influences? Today, it is not digital vs face to face. It is not a zero sum game. Now is the time for all selling teams to be open to new ways of thinking.


Trade shows and meeting are now making a slow come back. We all remain cautious and concerned about health issues so meetings are now viewed differently. Each trade show that has made a comeback return to face to face meetings has altered their methods. Each returning event has brought a learning experience and all eyes are watching. The trade show model of the future is unfolding as we speak.



A snapshot of the past...

The trade show and meeting industry in America represented a $100 billion contribution to the US GNP. For Chicago, it represented a $6 billion contribution to the city, with similar contributions to each top city in the USA. With covid behind us, how will the meeting and convention industry now change going forward? Time will tell.


Over the past 60 years we have experienced many nation shaking events from wars to economic catastrophes. Adding Covid to the list of business obstacles, the meeting industry will continue to evolve using the power of face to face marketing to connect people and build trade opportunities, but tactics will be different.


Trade show marketing has contributed greatly to helping companies to grow their businesses, both domestically and internationally. For any industry, the power of face to face engagement, at a single location, has proven to be a business building tool.



So how did trade show marketing evolve to this point? And how will it adjust post covid? In each decade we have experienced a crisis, in one form or the other, that pushed to change trade show marketing tactics.


I would briefly like to share how the trade show industry adjusted to the challenges and evolved over the past 50 years here in America.


The trade show industry really started globally with street venders and world fairs. European countries can be given credit for developing the concept of trade fairs as we know them today. From an America point of view trade shows started in the 1900’s, kicking into high gear in the 30’s-60’s. All trade shows stopped during WWII and returned in the 50’s. This review below is but a brief snapshot of the turn of events in the past five decades.



Pre-1970-Industry Associations embraced face to face meetings and exhibits. The major attraction was to introduce new products and to make personal contacts. Most shows were held in hotels.


1970-1980-Conventions were perceived as a party with industry peers but changed to deliver marketing opportunities.


1980-1990-GoGo Growth-Venue expansion and Supplier Specialization. Furniture, Carpet, AV, Trucking, and independent I&D companies flourished.


1990-2000-Technology- Doing More with Less. Computers, internet change thinking. Exhibits were now portables, systems, fabric to make lighter and easier to install. Drayage and labor costs forced new ways of thinking.


2000-2010-Trade Shows Mean Business- Supplier companies now provided Measurement, Cost Control, and Engagement tools. CFO’s wanted justification for trade show costs. 9/11 and economic downturns influenced this thinking. Las Vegas and Orlando now became attractive locations to save on costs.


2010-2020-Technology, International Expansion-Experiential Tactics. Lighting and AV technology were applied to create a theatrical feeling. Trade show and event design became Experiential. Smart Phone thinking was applied everywhere. US companies finally began to embrace international markets beyond their border. The supply chain is a now global.

2020-2021-Covid Mania

The meeting and trade show industry, worldwide, came to a halt!


After two years, the industry once again adjusts, but this time a bit more urgently with digital thinking now being embraced.



Doing Things Differently…

Some thoughts on new ways of thinking.

Further discussions needed here.


* Health Prevention Tactics


* Smaller Events-but Greater Return


* Educational Tactics on and off site


* Consolidation of Shows


* Attendee Isolation Tactics


* Hybrid Messaging Tactics- Melding of digital with face to face tactics of the past.


Going Forward…

The lines have now been blurred between ON-LINE and FACE to FACE communication methods. A blend of both must be incorporated into exhibit design. It requires new way of thinking.


INFLUENCER MARKETING is the business of TRUST-whatever medium we select.


The future of trade show marketing is RELATABILITY with TRUST. Being perceived as AUTHENTIC will sure influence your marketing success. Exhibit marketing will require that we get out of the mindset- “This is how we have done it in the past”. It is not digital vs face to face. It is not a zero sum game. Embracing digital tactics will assist to enhance the ‘in-person’ experience.


Trade Shows Still Work….

Connecting People and Ideas with Hybrid Thinking


The trade show industry and its stakeholders have demonstrated their ability to bend and adjust to keep the magic of face to face marketing alive. The evolution of the $100 billion trade show industry for the USA has been quite a feat of achievement given all the challenges it has experienced over the past ten decades. Looking forward to see how the next five years unfold!

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