Embrace the Event Evolution: Trade Show Marketing for a COVID and post-COVID World


Think about when you were putting the final touches on your upcoming event schedule. You picked out the properties and graphics, notified those who would staff the exhibit, and booked plane and hotel reservations. Then out of nowhere came COVID-19 to wreak unbelievable havoc on your trade show program.

Several recent articles have focused on the phenomenon called “Black Swan” events, defined by their unpredictability, their far-reaching and almost catastrophic consequences, and the tendency afterward to make the occurrence seem less random than it actually was. Whether or not there will be an effort to explain COVID-19 as being less random, the first two conditions have been met.

While everyone communicates electronically on a daily basis, there has always the option to meet face-to-face. With this opportunity denied on a global scale, we’ve come to realize what we’re missing: human in-person interaction. And the live event industry has been pummeled—not only trade shows, but all the ancillary industries like travel, hotels, restaurants, wherever people meet to talk, socialize, and do business.

But like the fallout from 9/11, this too shall pass. And in the meantime, how do you plan for the future when the end date for the response to the virus is uncertain?

In conversations with trade show and event managers, three planning scenarios emerge. These are not mutually exclusive but three possible contingencies, depending on outcomes not under their control.

  1. Live events—full speed ahead. Trade show marketers are using the model that has worked for so long with a few modifications. Beyond hand sanitizer on every exhibit counter, plans include reducing the number of touch screens, building in lag time for testing for the virus before people enter the hall, and possibly reduced exhibit sizes. Planners are reviewing the model for any modifications that can ensure safety. On the other hand, they are keenly aware of the growing need and appreciation for human interaction, networking, and the exchange of ideas.
  2. Virtual events—a new reality. Since most live events have been either postponed or canceled during 2020 (and into 2021 in many cases), we have, theoretically, moved to virtual events. The problem is that although the possibility of virtual events has been around for at least a decade, the description of what those events look like has been nebulous. Add to that the fact that the industry hasn’t really embraced the technology for virtual events in any significant way, and you have a situation where everyone wonders what really constitutes a virtual event. Are they webinars? Are they built on platforms like Zoom? Are the platforms sufficiently robust to handle large numbers of participants? What form will the give-and-take so valuable at events assume? Will they be monetized? Will there be an exhibit hall? What type of engagement will make the exhibits compelling? Sponsorships? When you consider that groups like medical associations depend on revenue from their meetings and events for necessary funds, these questions are critical.
  3. A hybrid event—a combination of live and virtual. Disregard the fact that this becomes a planning challenge. The reality is that many people will be risk-averse when it comes to traveling or participating in large group activities. They will not want to board planes, stay in hotels, or eat in restaurants. Many companies have instituted travel restrictions. Yet potential attendees want to be collegial with others in their industries. The answer seems to be a virtual component for live events that meets the needs of this contingent. For associations and event organizers, this means addressing the possibilities of new technology seriously. And beyond technology, what will a hybrid trade show look like? How will virtual sync with the live event? Will you be streaming from the live event? How can you create a comprehensive trade show marketing program?

All this means an incredible shift in the trade show manager’s responsibilities and knowledge base. For example:

For live events:

  • How do you anticipate attendance?
  • Are past show audits relevant?
  • What will you measure at live shows? Do numbers of leads count more now than previously?
  • What will your ROI be for this event?
  • What staffing needs do you have?
  • What size space will you need?
  • What type of exhibit properties and graphics will work?
  • What safety measures will you incorporate in your exhibit?
  • What cost-saving measures can you initiate—because you know you will be asked to do so?
  • Will there be new sponsorship opportunities that resonate with your brand message as well as current concerns?
  • Do you have outstanding credits with the organizer from canceled events?

For virtual events:

  • Have you ever participated in a virtual event before?
  • What are your goals for this event?
  • Have you developed a specific strategy for the virtual event that ties to your overall marketing strategy?
  • Do you feel you have the skills you need to manage a virtual event? If not, how can you acquire those skills?
  • Are you in conversations with your exhibit agency to help you with this project?
  • What engagement are you planning for the virtual event that will resonate with your target market?
  • How do you budget for this event?
  • Can you do pre-show marketing?
  • How will you measure the impact of your participation?

For hybrid events:

  • How will your plans include both virtual and live attendees?
  • Can you negotiate a package that will include live, virtual, and sponsorships across all the event offerings?
  • What are your onsite challenges?
  • What are your challenges on a virtual platform?
  • If you want to feature a version of your live exhibit on the virtual event, have you talked with your exhibit partners to make sure this is possible?
  • How do you market your event participation?

“New Normal” is an overused term that also popped up post-9/11. “Event evolution” makes much more sense. Consider the organizers and the new details in contracts with venues. You will be asked about the safety conditions whenever you and your company travel to live shows, and you will need to be the person with answers.

A situation that seemed a remote possibility is upon us and is forcing us to consider new ways to look at events. We all need to embrace the evolution of event marketing.

21 Questions To Ask