The writer is London-based co-founder of footwear brand Sante + Wade
When will things ever return to normal? This wistful refrain has become as ubiquitous in the UK as talking about the weather. But as I scan the influx of emails inviting me to sign up for a trade show, I am beginning to wonder if they already are.
Trade fairs and exhibitions are hugely important for economic prosperity. The UK exhibitions industry was worth £11bn annually in 2019, according to a 2020 UK events report by the Business Visits and Events Partnership.
When the pandemic hit, event organisers saw their revenues evaporate overnight. It was a body blow for brands too because exhibiting at a trade fair has long been a vital sales tool: they are a platform to display new products, connect with existing clients and attract potential new buyers.
In response, many organisers launched virtual events, enabling exhibitors to connect with buyers online. But the results have been mixed. They certainly filled the void but for brands like mine who sell products through intermediaries, such as wholesalers, there’s no substitute for seeing and feeling a product in person.
Now, my inbox suggests trade shows in person are firmly back in industry calendars. Helen Tonkey, a director at Halo Fashion Agency, which connects brands and retailers, attended a trade fair late last year. It was her first in almost two years and she was pleasantly surprised by the experience.
“There were more people there than I thought there was going to be,” she says. “People behaved themselves. You felt safe, but it was nice to see people out.”
While the overall attendee numbers were smaller, she noted, those who had ventured out were serious about buying. This shift towards quality over quantity is a good reason for optimism about the industry’s prospects.
However, before we all rush to return our RSVPs, it is important not to be too misty-eyed about the past — trade shows have always been a mixed bag. It is easy for brands to be seduced by the prospect of hundreds of buyers visiting their booth. But there have never been any guarantees of sales, and the costs of exhibiting can be eye-watering. The exhibitor budget needs to factor in booth space, stand construction, travel and lodging, shipping and a raft of other expenses.
Even before the pandemic, people were questioning whether trade shows provided value for money. For Tonkey, an overhaul of the cost of exhibiting has to be part of any recovery. “New brands can’t afford to pay £20,000 to £30,000 for a stand,” she says. “It’s a lot of money and while trade shows are vital to the industry . . . I just don’t know whether the formal exhibitions are going to carry on in the same way.”
While events are now restarting, it is also unclear whether buyers are making the same choices about which shows to attend as they did pre-pandemic. Safety is still a huge factor and international travel is not nearly as seamless as in the past. Anecdotally, attendance, for now at least, seems to be more localised, which is not surprising.
Indeed, a separate report by FTI consulting suggests SMEs want to attend smaller and more targeted events. Greater segmentation is clearly needed.
This is not to say the future for trade shows is bleak. After two years of isolation, businesses are eager for opportunities to display their products and network with potential buyers and suppliers. “It’s very difficult to grow your business without a physical presence,” notes Tonkey.
And for three to four days that is exactly what a trade show provides — a showcase for your brand and a captive audience. If the past two years have shown anything it is that an opportunity like this cannot easily be replaced.
As for when things will ever return to normal, the answer might be never, if the only option is to go back to the way things were. But trade shows are now fusing the in-person experience with online elements. A sign that the exhibitions industry, like the small businesses who support it, is on the path to a new normal.