Cancelled trade fairs were the first sign of the significance of the new coronavirus, which has now affected all areas of the economy. Almost all market players are now facing similar questions: how can I maintain, expand or change my product to keep my added value accessible for customers? A look at the benefit for the customer has a new focus in times like these. It shows something positive: the crisis is inspiring creativity and productivity, and not just for the extra agility needed in a moment of limited options either.
As platforms to showcase innovation on an international level, trade fairs have a role in enterprise that is just as indispensable as it is exposed and that deserves a closer look given the current disruption in the markets. A look that goes deeper than dividing time into “before and after COVID-19”.
The leading trade fairs have never before had to face a challenge as great as this. Long-standing exhibitors are cancelling their involvement, some buying groups have stopped sending their buyers to trade fairs and the trade fairs are moving locations in order to realign. The impacts from postponed and completely cancelled trade fairs are still unforeseeable. Proponents of alternative formats began declaring the end of the trade fair years ago. However, are the leading fairs really so easily replaced by travelling roadshows, virtual formats and in-house exhibitions in locations as idyllic as they are hard to access?
In any case, there is one thing that is becoming clear to us: the digital revolution is opening up new options that can offer a lifeline in more than just times of crisis. At this time especially we are learning how fundamentally important trade fairs and direct exchange are. Trade fairs provide an international platform to generate interactions with traders and end customers in a short amount of time and to learn from their response to new products – an extensive and emotional exchange of experiences that cannot be replaced by other activities.
A digital factory floor as a trade fair venue
Bavarian plant manufacturer Grenzebach responded with creativity and determination when the LogiMAT 2020 fair was cancelled. Frédéric Erben, from the corporate strategy and communications department at Grenzebach, says the decision to run with plan B was made within 30 minutes, “Sustainability is one of our core values and the last thing we wanted to do was throw away an already fully produced trade show display.” The fair display was therefore erected without fanfare on the company’s own premises and the new products presented on its digital profiles.
Frédéric Erben has thoroughly positive experiences to report, “We were able to reach all our existing customers and provide them with a comparable trade fair experience.” Despite the great success of the digital trade fair production and the strong media response, Grenzebach is planning further trade fair appearances. “People want to experience our technology live and it is otherwise hard for us to calculate how many potential customers we may have missed.”
The trade fairs have an answer to the crisis, too. imm cologne, for instance, will initiate a programme in late April 2020. A platform for new products offers exhibitors the opportunity to present their latest products free of charge. According to Markus Majerus, communications manager at Koelnmesse, the platform is being implemented as quick, direct help and being marketed worldwide. Despite all the benefits offered by digital transformation, Majerus views trade fairs as a lasting connection between people, brands and products, “Emotion is hard to depict digitally.”
Nevertheless, trade fairs need new concepts. While the presentation of new products was previously the most important thing, today the focus is on attaching themes to the experience. imm cologne is devoting an entire hall to the theme of “Connect” in 2021. “Digital living environments will be displayed here; smart homes will be combined with urban living. Trade fairs need to leave their industry silos and tap into broad themes,” says Majerus.
In doing this, trade fairs are responding to the phenomenon where boundaries between industries are becoming blurred. This also applies to the working world, among other things. Homes and workplaces are becoming one and offices are becoming increasingly liveable.
Thomas Postert, director of Orgatec, sees the trade fair in autumn 2020 as an interdisciplinary “theme and innovation park”. With an overall theme of the “Variety of Work”, different workplace concepts – from remote work to open-plan layouts and activity-based working – will be presented.
“This will be accompanied by events, workshops, panel discussions, talks and ‘best-practice’ installations that we will be offering in cooperation with leading partners from academia and the media as well as association and trading partners,” explains Postert. “This is also necessary because target markets such as architects, HR officers and facility managers or the real-estate sector want interdisciplinary solutions tailored to their special needs.”
Trade fairs are investing in digital solutions and tools
Digital technologies will in future also be an important element of Orgatec. The #inspiredhospitality event concept will display such things as current and future real-life scenarios that influence our working worlds. On the “Variety of Work Boulevard” – developed by the “leap in time” lab at TU Darmstadt – there will even be an opportunity to be guided through various working worlds by a robot.
Digital tools are an important and helpful addition to trade fairs and have a significance for presentation and matchmaking. On the other hand, they are not a replacement for people being together in the flesh.
Messe Frankfurt is also investing in its digital future. Martina Bergmann, head of digital products and web solutions, and her team are developing new digital offerings to enhance the trade fair’s marketing, increase visitor appeal and improve visitor service. The market research studies initiated by her division have shown that trade fairs remain part of the ideal marketing mix for millennials. However, along with the changed expectations of trade fairs, it is most important to address the changing information and networking behaviours in a targeted manner.
Digital tools are an important and helpful addition to trade fairs and have a significance for presentation and matchmaking that will increase. On the other hand, they are not a replacement for people being together in the flesh. Networking, emotion and storytelling still work best face to face; people want an experience felt by all the senses.
In this respect, the coronavirus, like any other crisis, presents opportunities. For all the pressure to innovate and digitise, we recognise that we need personal contact to share knowledge and a sense of community beyond the indisputable opportunities and efficiency of digital offerings. That is why the trade fair format has nowhere near outlived its usefulness for the customer experience. Rather, it is currently benefiting from the new methods being employed in an era of social distancing.