Covid-19 Couldn’t Kill Trade Shows And Events: What's Next For Marketers?

May 27, 2021

Marketing events: you can love them or hate them. In my humble opinion, they have been a necessary evil in the marketing mix. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve been able to lead a number of amazing events, including JavaOne (before Oracle bought Sun Microsystems), and have actually had the opportunity to attend a TED event in Monterey, California. Those were brilliant and amazing events. But many other tradeshows and industry events, although necessary, seemed to always disappoint since we didn’t seem to reach the right people to warrant our investment. Yet what we experienced at JavaOne, as an example, was the beginning of an interesting trend. We would have approximately 20,000 people attend in person, and 10 times that would view the event online over the course of a six-month period. As a result, years ago, I advocated for digital content and reach, not high-touch, high-cost, in-person experiences. 

In fact, I proudly predicted (boasted) that trade shows would become a thing of the past. I was secretly hoping that we would no longer have to sponsor and attend other people’s events. Actually, when a large computer trade show folded, I thought, “This is it … all trade shows will fall one by one.” Wow, not only was I wrong, but events also continued to pop up everywhere and continued to thrive because people want to get together. face to face events

I was inspired to write this post when my friend and colleague, Jonathan Becher, tweeted: “To all of you using the term ‘virtual events,’ please don’t. They aren’t virtual. They are real events that just happen to be taking place online … Just call them events.”

Prior to Covid-19, many of us planned our marketing calendars around the top events in our industry: There were plenty of opportunities to sponsor, exhibit at or attend them. Starting in March 2020, one by one, events either got postponed, were canceled or turned virtual.

Virtual-Only Events 

In the early days of the pandemic, it was complete turmoil in the event world. But so many of us marketers were astounded by the record number of registrations and attendance of the webinars that were held. I remember Zooming with my marketing friends at various companies, and we compared the record numbers we were experiencing. One company that I talked to had 6,000 people attend one webinar early in the pandemic. Amazing, right? 

Then, as the pandemic continued to keep us in front of screens all day, every day, and away from offices, convention halls or ballrooms, we realized that we needed to adapt to the changing times quickly. We, along with everyone else, started seeing our audience numbers drop — likely due to Zoom and video fatigue. We scaled back and regrouped once again to offer fewer webinars and less virtual time. 

Now things are changing again. To illustrate, the virtual CES 2021 event had over 83,000 total qualified industry attendees and three-million-plus keynote and conference views, according to the CES website. The last CES in 2020 had over 170,000 attendees. Maybe we will never go back to Vegas and walk miles in the exhibit halls, right? Not so fast.

The New Event Normal

A year into Covid-19, with vaccines becoming available, there is a hunger to travel, see people and try to reach a new normal. Wearing masks, staying six feet apart and avoiding hand-shaking all seem like no problem, as we are all ready to see each other in person at events again. But will we travel?

I believe that we will all need to adapt to hybrid events. What will that do to the marketing mix? As a marketer who advocated for online streaming live events even prior to 2020, I think it’s possible that not much will change, but then again, perhaps it will.

Perhaps we will be more selective about location, in-person audiences, timing, budget, production quality, employee participation, sponsorship packages and the size of events. Perhaps we will skew toward providing more content online versus in person, fewer days together and more intimacy with our top customers and partners. I also see this as a huge opportunity to reduce our flight-related carbon footprints; going to hybrid or online-only events could be great for our environment. 

Going Forward

Here’s what I know now. Our marketing team will plan on sponsoring and exhibiting online at fewer industry events; hold our own online, hybrid and selective in-person events (when it is possible); and always work hard to deliver relevant industry content to provoke discussion and engagement. We held our first Virtual NOVA event (sorry, Jonathan, for not dropping “virtual”) with nearly triple the number of attendees of any of our in-person NOVA events. With over twenty of our global customers sharing their views on our industry — an experience with nearly no technical glitches — and content that inspired our audience, our event paid off significantly. And we plan to replicate that again. 

So now, the question in my mind is when will we go back to in-person events? I, for one, will be advocating for a new approach that not only embraces a live, in-person experience but also engages a broader online audience. As marketers, we should work to educate, engage, inform and inspire, regardless of location.

What’s Your Plan?

What will you do as a marketer as the world changes again? Will you be adjusting to a new normal or going back to the way it was? I was wrong about the demise of the trade show many years ago. And now, Covid-19 might have made events a little sick for a while, but I doubt they will die. I can only wonder what will change and what will remain as it was. Here’s a question: if you are going to an event like CES in 2022 or 2023 (to be safe), will I see you in the Uber/taxi line or online? That’s the big question in my mind. Certainly, there are interesting times ahead of us.

Ingrid Burton, CMO at Quantcast, an intelligent audience and measurement technology company. Read Ingrid Burton's full executive profile here.
Packaged Rentals




Download one of our Resource Guide Catalogs!

Our custom, modular, portable, and rental exhibits catalogs are a great resource for trade show information as well as exhibit designs.

Download A Catalog

We promise that we won't SPAM you.