Are hybrid trade shows the way forward?

The global pandemic over the last year has had a devastating effect on the live events industry. Trade shows have been unable to take place and many are having to find their feet on a digital platform. Although many are keen to meet up in person again, some are finding the digital platforms very convenient and less time consuming. So, is a hybrid approach the future?

Having built a digital platform for 2020 and 2021, and with an uncertain future regarding large in-person events, some trade shows are now looking at how to utilise their digital platform to give exhibitors and attendees an opportunity to connect throughout the year rather than just for one week.

One such trade show that is looking into this approach is Light + Building. Having cancelled last year’s event, the bi-annual trade show is set to reopen its doors to the public in Frankfurt am Main from 13 to 18 March 2022. Brand manager, Johannes Möller, explains how organisers have taken advantage of the current situation to work creatively on a variety of new digital features oriented to the needs of both exhibitors and visitors.

“Over the past months, we have all learnt not only to work flexibly from home but also, in particular, to adapt to new situations and replan as necessary,” he said. “Today, video conferences are the norm. At the same time, however, we have seen that personal encounters are of inestimable value. This is not a new discovery. On the contrary, it became apparent at a very early stage. New at Light + Building is that we have worked on and improved our products. One upshot is our development work on the familiar exhibitor search engine, which has been upgraded to the Light + Building Contactor, the platform for the lighting and building-services sector. Online, the Light + Building Contactor perfectly complements the physical trade fair in Frankfurt.”

Image: Messe Frankfurt Exhibition GmbH / Jens Liebchen

The Contactor is a new digital tool that is available to all exhibitors signed up to the 2022 trade fair and allows them to create a profile, including corporate details, contact persons, images and information about products, innovations and solutions. The Contactor digital tool transforms into a virtual counter when the in-person event begins in Frankfurt, allowing visitors who cannot attend in person to have a digital meeting place with exhibitors.

Möller added: “The virtual counter is the extension of the exhibition stand in the digital world. In this way, we bring together customers and suppliers independently of borders, continents and time zones and ensure the necessary contacts. The encounters can then take place live at the fair itself or by video call from a remote location, thus making Light + Building more independent and ensuring a constant digital presence in an age of travel restrictions.”

Integrating the marketing for Light + Building and the Light + Building Contactor allows further increased coverage globally. This new approach to reach visitors, both real and virtual, now covers more than 150 countries. Möller stated: “In other words, the event can achieve a completely new dimension of coverage because exhibitors profit from both real and virtual visitors.”

Image: Messe Frankfurt Exhibition GmbH / Jens Liebchen

The virtual counter allows exhibitors to take visitors on virtual tours of the stand, give product presentations, give personal advice to customers or hold webinars. Direct communication can also be made via a chat function, video calls or in digital conference rooms. Another useful feature is the AI-aided matchmaking process which makes contact recommendation based on the attendee’s interests. Once the in-person show is closed, the Light + Building Contactor remains open and allows worldwide contact between exhibitors and attendees throughout the year.

Although the digital channels are useful and more convenient for some people, Möller clarifies that the in-person event will still take the main focus. “Last year, we learnt just how important personal encounters are and that they cannot be replaced by digital mean. Nevertheless, digital channels of communication have given an enormous boost by the pandemic. We must take advantage of the positive effects and integrate them into the event for the benefit of all exhibitors and visitors.”

To complement the Light + Building Contactor service, organisers have also been working on other dynamic digital content, such as podcasts, video interview and digital forums.

Image: Messe Frankfurt Exhibition GmbH / Jens Liebchen

Möller concluded: “In future, we will also round off the special areas we are planning for the event in Frankfurt with digital features. At these areas, we examine the challenges facing the sector and discuss solutions and innovations. Naturally, this includes taking a look into the future, as well as spotlighting the latest trends and training issues.”

Arguably, one of the biggest trade shows in the residential AV industry is also set to take a hybrid approach. As the last show that many of us attended before the global lockdowns began, ISE made the decision to postpone this year’s show to the beginning of June. However, after recently realising that too was unlikely to ahead as normal, organisers announced a series of local events across four European cities with virtual attendee options alongside.

Now running throughout June, ISE Digital and ISE Live elements will integrate to bring the industry together in a safe way. Powered by CISCO technology, ISE Digital is a two-day event that will run alongside the first regional in-person event taking place in Barcelona form 1-2 June.

It could be a long time before we see the bustling halls of a trade show packed again. Image: ISE

Providing an intuitive, digital TV-style menu of content, the platform will feature a comprehensive programme of live and on-demand content to engage, entertain and inform virtual visitors.

Following the Barcelona in-person event, ISE Digital will be available on-demand in the weeks that follow, reactivated with live updates from the Munich, Amsterdam and London events.

The digital platform will explore ‘The Future of AV’ by highlighting business growth and opportunities, while showcasing solutions, in the context of the industry emerging from the confines of the pandemic. It will also feature daily thought-leadership and market intelligence with insights on how the latest technologies can futureproof business in the future.

Virtual attendees will also be able to enjoy live content form the Main Stage as well as focused Tech Tracks with insight from key technology sectors. Attendees can also use the digital platform to interact, share ideas and ask questions, even when not attending the event in-person.

Integrated Systems Events managing director, Mike Blackman, said: “Whether it’s a global case study, expert presentation, roundtable, CEO interview or product demo, visitors to ISE Digital will learn about the latest innovations in a new and fascinating manner. We are excited to share this with the AV industry.”

Image: ISE

Of course, alongside the digital platform are four in-person regional events taking place throughout June. Outlining the programme, Blackman explained: “The ISE live events will allow our industry to reconnect with the AV community in four of Europe’s leading AV hubs. Each local event will provide two full days of networking in a safe, relaxed environment – perfect for catching up with contacts and colleagues. Each event will provide the opportunity to build a new set of ‘high worth’ connections including leading installers, integrators, and end users.”

The four events will take place at the Fira de Barcelona in Barcelona (1-2 June), the MAC Forum in Munich (7-8 June), RAI in Amsterdam (15-16 June), and Evolution in London (23-24 June).

David Labuskes, CEO of AVIXA, a partner of ISE, said: “I believe this approach reflects what we’ve heard, a strong desire for prudent and safe face-to-face gatherings that can reinforce business connections and initiate growth. We are honoured to be in a position to offer these to our community.”

Adding to that, another ISE partner, Giles Sutton, joint CEO of CEDIA said: “The success of ISE has been built on broad industry support and that is the reason why we have taken these decisions. We look forward to a debut show where our community can all be together again.”

It is understandable that many people are still uncomfortable about the idea of being at a large event again, and there’s no telling how long that will last. The global vaccine rollout will help the issue. A ‘Covid passport’ could be another way to make exhibitors and visitors alike feel safer about attending in the future.

Digital-only events, although the only option for the last year if not cancelling altogether, is perhaps not the way forward, with many people unwilling to sit at a computer every day for a week watching presentation after presentation. However, the hybrid approach allows those who cannot travel or those who simply have limited time to still attend and get involved.

It also opens up to a wider audience, with people able to virtually attend trade shows that are not entirely relevant to their business but may have certain aspects of relevance.

No one knows how long this pandemic will go on for but if you haven’t already, it’s probably a good idea to invest in digital platforms for trade shows and live events to ensure a future post-pandemic.

Main image: ISE