With the Covid-19 pandemic slowly fading out, physical trade shows are coming back. Most of them are back on regular schedule and take place without any Covid-related restrictions. However, you can still feel the disruptive impact of the pandemic.

The trade show industry is, to some extent, in a recovery mode. Most trade shows return with a significantly reduced number of exhibitors and visitors. At the same time, many B2B companies have used the lockdown times to try different event formats and new sales and marketing channels, adopting an online-first approach. Now, it is time for B2B deep-tech companies to adapt their strategies to the post-Covid world.

Covid disruption leads exhibitors to cautiousness

The pandemic had a huge impact on how B2B companies evaluate and approach their trade show activities. This is no surprise as a lot of exhibitors in Europe and especially in Germany, where physical trade shows still are a big thing, were hit by surprise by the pandemic. Quite often they didn’t have any robust alternative marketing and sales channels in place that could replace the show presences. Plus, a lot of companies lost capital. As trade shows were cancelled at short-notice due to governmental decisions, they rendered exhibitors unable to recuperate their cash. And now that inflation is kicking in on top, trade show attendance won’t get cheaper for sure. Therefore, B2B companies are a lot more cautious before committing to big spends.

As a result, a lot of B2B companies have reviewed their extensive trade show schedules and have often decided to scale down on trade shows, either by visiting less events, having smaller booths, or a combination of both. Some have even stopped physical activities completely. The latest trends in attendance in “Messeland” Germany show that trade shows on average attract up to 70 percent of the exhibitors and approximately 65 percent of the visitors of the pre-Corona period. In the industrial and electronics space, it seems like global broadline shows such as Hannover Show or Electronica are affected more by this churn than the more niche and vertical events such as Embedded World or SPS.

B2B Trade shows on average attract up to 70 percent of the exhibitors and approximately 65 percent of the visitors of the pre-Corona period.

Photo courtesy of NuernbergMesse/Frank Boxler

Why virtual trade shows don’t work

During the lockdown times, show organizers created a lot of virtual trade show formats at haste to replace the cancelled physical events. Let’s face it: despite the use of modern digital platforms with VR applications, virtual booths, apps or matchmaking, online-only events were not able to really make exhibitors or trade show attendees happy. Digital conferences or webinars are different and can work, but the concept of trade shows doesn’t seem to be fully transferable onto the internet due to its complexity in practice.

As a reaction to the lack of viable trade show options, many of the bigger B2B brands have expanded their own virtual event capabilities at that time by building up their own TV studios for livestreams and expansive virtual events. Companies such as these have a very professional set-up and a lot of investment has gone into their individual expo. While these virtual events usually work quite well – especially with an existing customer base – they are no full replacement for an attendee’s trade show experience. From a visitor’s perspective, someone can scan a whole industry by walking through one or two halls of a trade show and directly talk to the experts. Whereas, depending on the size of the niche they are in, they would need to attend 10 or 15 different virtual events, scattered throughout the calendar, to get an overview of a specific market.

Why physical trade shows won’t die

As a result of reviewing their trade show activities, some B2B brands have decided to disengage from physical events because they think they may be too expensive, or they don’t need trade shows anymore to directly get in touch with their customers. Even though there is some truth in this, I think it is too short-sighted. If the main KPI for the evaluation of a trade show attendance is the pure number of leads – which often is the case – I can understand why people come to the conclusion to not attend trade shows anymore. Most other marketing channels or tactics are way more efficient and cost-effective in generating leads than a physical trade show.

Yet, especially in our “always-on” digital world, the power of human interaction, direct contact to the brands, and hands-on product demos is probably higher than ever. When attending Embedded World in Nuremberg, Germany, in February, I could feel how happy people where to finally meet in person again and to (re)build relationships with those they had only seen online. I heard a lot of positive feedback from exhibiting companies, journalists, and show visitors alike.

Whereas before, exhibiting at a trade show was mainly to create awareness and generate new contacts for the business, the focus seems to have slightly shifted today. With the changing B2B buyer behaviour, we see that trade show visitors act differently than in the past. People now do online research before attending a show. You could say they often come with a “relevant set of suppliers” in their head to the show of which they then try to visit the booths to learn more. For exhibitors, this means that the experience they provide visitors at the booth needs to shift from a general awareness creating portfolio display more to things that help buyers in their decision-making process. Therefore, trade show booths will be increasingly focused around very specific applications, hands-on product demos, and spending quality time with potential clients.

Trade show booths will be increasingly focused around very specific applications, hands-on product demos

Photo courtesy of NuernbergMesse/Frank Boxler

Integrated marketing campaigns boost exhibitors’ ROI

Today, physical trade shows should not be very expensive one-off activities anymore, but rather embedded in content-lead campaigns that run for several months before and after the show. First, there needs to be content on relevant digital channels to inform the new prospects in the awareness and consideration phase before they attend the event. Then, there is the personal interaction at the B2B trade show, where you build relationships and trust, and the potential customers can have a first-hand, unique experience of the products. After the event, you need to follow-up with your target audience and provide them with further, more detailed information of what the product or solution can do for them, to hopefully be “top-of-mind” once they have developed a buying need.

Personal interaction at the B2B trade show build relationships and trust

Photo courtesy of NuernbergMesse/Frank Boxler

The good thing about this holistic marketing approach is that you are not limited to the people attending the show or that are geographically close to you. You can use the digital campaigns to open up new opportunities and to reuse the content across a wide variety of channels and purposes. And, instead of purely generating new contacts, you catch prospects early in the research phase and guide them through their buyer journey until the purchase. This approach significantly improves lead quality and conversion to revenue – all of which helps to boost exhibitors’ ROI.

Creating a seamless customer experience

Despite all the excitement about digital marketing and KPIs, B2B companies shouldn’t renounce physical events completely as these offer unique opportunities for face-to-face meetings and interactions that virtual events cannot match. Attending and exhibiting at trade shows will always enhance brand awareness and aid in building lasting customer relationships. And we all know trust and personal relationships are absolutely key in B2B and its marketing strategies.

All in all, while you don’t build trust and relationships in physical sales meetings and trade shows alone anymore, it is about finding the right mix of online- and offline-interaction with the client across all relevant touch-points. This can only be achieved through a consistent omnichannel customer experience that empowers the prospect to decide on how they want to research and buy products, and one that makes the whole buying process seamless and easy for them. Therefore, now is the perfect time for B2B deep tech companies to rethink their trade show presence.