• Dossier

A fictional exchange of ideas

Trade show tomorrow?!

Bursting with life or stone dead? Either way...different! Under comprehensive hygiene plans, the first trade shows are now being held. At the same time, classic events are being canceled or virtualized. COVID-19 has slowed the expo ecosystem to a standstill while advancing digital solutions at a whizzing pace. Nevertheless, the desire for personal contact remains. Halfway between hope and despair, hosts and exhibitors are seeking new (hybrid) solutions. There will be no going back to pre-COVID status. Because of the coronavirus itself. In any case, even before the world wasn’t an ideal place, and the trade show concept was already undergoing a far-reaching transformation process.

We spoke with various experts and have come up with several potential solutions.

COVID-19 changes a lot.

  • Emma Exhibitor
    Managing Director Marketing and Sales in a medium-sized manufacturing company
  • Tim Trade Fair
    CEO of a leading trade show company

Emma Exhibitor: Hi Tim, how are things on your end?

Tim Trade Fair: Not that easy – I can tell you that much! But we’re using these crazy times to think very hard about what the trade fair of tomorrow will look like.

Emma Exhibitor: Well that sounds practically harmless. You’ve just about dropped to zero. Talk about a hard brake at full speed! I mean, the importance of trade shows was already being discussed anyway, but we’re looking at an entirely different order of magnitude here, aren’t we?

Tim Trade Fair: Unfortunately yes. Due to COVID-19, we’ve already lost about half of our revenue. If we’re not able to get going again this fall/winter, we’re going to need a full restructuring and entirely new financing. Consolidations were familiar before, but this is really a different order of magnitude. But how do you deal with the fact that trade shows just aren’t happening right now?

Emma Exhibitor: To be honest, that’s not so easy for us either. The dominant big companies, giants like Apple, it’s easy for them to talk. They’ve got new products and they get people’s attention anyway. But they’re not the market. The broad mass of companies like us need external forums with appeal. We can only do this to a limited extent on our own. Sales needs special occasions, a thematic bundling where we have the place to shine.

Tim Trade Fair: Ach, bisher habt ihr doch meist auf die Kosten geschimpft und jetzt vermisst ihr uns?

COVID-19 has forced the trade show ecosystem into a total upheaval.

Findings from a survey of experts in the trade show business

Emma Exhibitor: Of course (grins), but in the end we’d always had big inhibitions about saving money for trade shows. My sales reps were always ready to cut back my sales plans at the slightest hint. But now a whole lot more is in flames. Not only classic exhibitions like yours, but also in-house trade shows and our permanent showrooms.

Tim Trade Fair: But why your showrooms, too?

Emma Exhibitor: Before we relied pretty heavily on in-house showrooms. Now we see that the digital technologies we developed as short-notice alternatives work just about as well. And we believe that we can really cut costs that way – obviously that’s very much in focus at the moment.

Tim Trade Fair: Really?? Are you going to completely switch to digital or what? And what about personal contact? And anyway you need fixed times in the year so that your projects and materials can get finished in the first place (smiles challengingly)...And what’s with the tangible experience, with trying things out or just letting colors work in the original?

Emma Exhibitor: Okay, okay – we see a lot of those things the same way you do. But we’re thinking in terms of hybrid solutions mixing personal contact, on-location experimenting and experiencing and massive digital support. One thing is clear: The desire to exchange and maintain networks is still there. We see this in every conversation with customers. But we supplement this with digital technologies, such as through a small digital film studio we set up for that purpose.

Tim Trade Fair: A film studio – you can come to us for that, too. We’re also working on just that kind of hybrid solution right now. We call it a “digital broadcasting station” or “content environment”. We increasingly view our exhibitions as thematic landscapes for which we have to keep improving our editorial competence. That’s not entirely new. Then we have to stage this physically on location and much more virtually as well.

In-house exhibitions and showrooms now face an existential test: Cost-benefit ratios are undergoing massive change.

Findings from a survey of experts in the trade show business

Emma Exhibitor: Sounds good, but that doesn’t change anything about the fact that, for better or for worse, you’ll have to get ready for significantly lower visitor numbers. We, for example, definitely won’t be able to keep sending out 200 employees like before. I don’t need to tell you how expensive that is with overnight accommodations and everything – and we were hardly seeing a real return on that anyway. And who still writes orders on location anymore?

Tim Trade Fair: That’s debatable. We still believe that a few flagships – i.e., relevant leading shows – will still be able to survive at a reasonable size. But you’re right about where the trend is heading. Some floor space and especially on-location visitor traffic will shrink, but digital visitors will also attend alongside the “real” ones, so the accompanying program will become noticeably more virtual.

Emma Exhibitor: Let’s get a little more specific.

Even classic trade shows will head in the direction of new, hybrid formats.

Findings from a survey of experts in the trade show business

Tim Trade Fair: Gladly. In theory all this has actually already been addressed (smiles knowingly). Take show A, clearly focused and a good choice of display window into the industry. And then there’s a good amount of exhibitor interest, also because the topic is well staged with regard to the times. Then we collaborate with journalists, industry experts, suitable celebrities...We’re an excellent communication opportunity. And on location we’d also see about a third of the visitors we had before.

Emma Exhibitor: So few visitors! A disaster for you guys! You might as well go ahead and close up shop.

Tim Trade Fair: Quite the opposite! When we include our virtual visitors, overall we’re doing better than the previous year. We help companies “broadcast” digitally to the web from our event – live, time delayed, with QA sessions, supplemented by cut-in films, graphics, etc. – so it can be received anywhere in the world: by partners, customers or the company’s employees. You can book support through us or obviously you can take care of that yourself. And you can book as a package program just like before. In the future we’ll be able to offer even more content, just more digitally.

Emma Exhibitor: I can already guess the new products...

Tim Trade Fair: Obviously – sponsoring, placements, broadcast spaces like “my company in the opening trailer” or naming privileges for shows like round tables, and a whole lot more.

Exhibitions as thematic hubs and “digital broadcasting stations”.

Findings from a survey of experts in the trade show business

The restructuring of the industry will be comprehensive and interdisciplinary.

Findings from a survey of experts in the trade show business

Emma Exhibitor: You know what? I can actually see that. Simply because we’re thinking in the same direction for our own events. For example, this applies to our big executive conference. The anchor point for the event is a small studio, and our CEO will sit there too and be interviewed live. But the speakers are based all over the world and we’ll be doing digital work groups. From the tech standpoint it’s working pretty well, but we still have a few things to learn about dramatization. That’s no longer one-to-one like before. Something has really started to change there. And it will stay that way after COVID-19, too. But let’s take off the rose-colored glasses for a minute. Do you really think we still need all of the existing formats?

Tim Trade Fair: I have to say this quietly, but...of course not! From a value-creation perspective, formats will consolidate. If we’re bringing participants together who don’t really need to network with each other, then the format has poor chances of survival. What has to be our goal is being, remaining or becoming a truly meaningful hub for the industry in question.

Emma Exhibitor: But to come back to the point that you still have to fill your venues: Do you think that you’ll always be able to fill the floors with concepts like the “digital broadcasting station” or hybrid events? And won’t all those visitors who are now paying less hurt you, anyway?

Tim Trade Fair: Actually we’re currently thinking very hard about other ways to use the spaces. For highly professional digital broadcasting by exhibitors to their customers, for example, or for network maintenance or knowledge transfer for our guests. But we’re not naive, and obviously we’re also thinking about concepts that require less space. The cost pressure isn’t going to let up.

Emma Exhibitor: Ditto. And for us the question remains of how else we can use what we’ve saved on trade shows, showrooms, travel costs, etc. in order to generate profit. An in-house studio and more digitalization and video in marketing is one approach here. The intelligent program is something we’re still developing. By the way, a booth builder helped us with the backdrops – so with a green screen and variable adjustments.

Tim Trade Fair: Yeah, we’re talking about that, too. “The next-generation fair booth” – less meeting rooms, but with good broadcasting possibilities and planned for use with other forms of staging. Now dramaturgy and creativity are becoming part of the strategy.

Emma Exhibitor: That’s exactly right. The topic keeps becoming more and more comprehensive. Really it always comes down to a mix of commercial considerations, strategy, communication and creativity.

Tim Trade Fair: Yep, I’m right there with you. What we’d really need are partners who can cover both sides. Or at least specialists who work well together.

Emma Exhibitor: Ha! Dream on. That’ll never work. After all, business consultants and communications consultants are arch enemies. Everybody knows that; they wouldn’t give each other the time of day...

Even exhibitors need to reorient themselves in marketing as well as sales.

Findings from a survey of experts in the trade show business

We’ve spoken with various experts in the trade show scene and we’ve also heard contradicting statements. Here’s a subjective summary:

“There are already numerous online exhibition systems with new providers; a lot is going to happen here in the next few years. There’s no going back to the world before COVID-19.”

“Present-day online shows are nothing more than presentation platforms; the interpersonal level is missing entirely.”

“Even before COVID-19, we viewed conventional trade show concepts critically. Over half of the costs had nothing to do with rent or booth fees. And it kept getting harder and harder to argue on the basis of the cost-benefit ratio.”

“Covid is making us all more cost-conscious. The same goes for travel costs. And the big players had already started doing their own thing before that. We’re even thinking increasingly hard about in-house formats.”

“It won’t work without personal exchange in the future, either. And we’d have a difficult time organizing the platforms for that by ourselves. The shows will consolidate and have a comeback.”

“Despite all the uncertainty, we see positive aspects as well. The pandemic gives us the possibility to get new and more attractive spaces. Our signal to the customers is: We’re there for you in spite of Covid – presently and personally.”

“We’ve worked with booth builders to make our booth concepts Covid-compatible, which obviously puts a firm limit on the number of visitors we have on the floor. And expanding further is something we couldn’t and wouldn't want to do.”

Exhibitor perspectives

“The trade show format isn’t fundamentally in doubt, not even as a result of COVID-19.”

“There’s a big need to catch up on personal exchange and networking.”

“Digital formats won’t replace physical ones, but complement them.”

“New market players like digital startups are a danger, especially for trend-herd events that aren’t really relevant.”

“Innovation cycles are becoming significantly shorter – this is also leading to an increased need to dialogue with the customers.”

“The shapes, sizes and number of shows will change significantly. There’s no future for those who don’t offer relevance and digital extension.”

“Trade shows are necessary especially when it comes to complex products that require explanation. That doesn’t work digitally.”

“There are big differences between industry and consumer goods trade shows. Industry shows are more likely to become more common, but also more decentralized and smaller. Consumer goods shows will likely decline, and trade show sales will lose significance.”

“Many trade shows already understood that they have to evolve before COVID-19 hit. We’re seeing the benefit there now.”

Perspectives from the trade show ecosystem

Products / Service catalogue

For exhibitors from industry and commerce


  • Development of editorial formats and (digital) marketing options
  • Evolution of marketing: Establishment of thematic hubs and “digital broadcasters”
  • Content development / implementation
  • Supervision and/or handling of CI and technology
  • Cross-media marketing

Dr. Wieselhuber & Partner

  • Development / reorientation of marketing / sales strategy
  • Costs review for trade shows, in-house exhibitions and showrooms
  • Development of a future road map incl. technical implementation
  • Quantification of cost-benefit ratios
  • Preparation of an implementation plan
  • Planning / replanning of the marketing-media mix

For trade show organizers


  • Development of editorial formats and (digital) marketing options
  • Creative services, supervision; handling and technical equipment
  • Content creation, organization of a “digital broadcaster”
  • Content marketing in social media as well as in classic channels
  • Definition and monitoring, KPIs, evaluation for exhibitions and customers

Dr. Wieselhuber & Partner

  • Restructuring
  • Reorientation / continuing development of the company strategy and business model
  • Development of hybrid models along the customer journey
  • Complete reorganization; new revenue models incl. financing and partner models
  • Quantification of the anticipated effects
  • Planning of implementation incl. a new business plan
  • Implementation support, coaching

Sliced or whole?

We’re reaching out to you together because this kind of interdisciplinary team is highly recommended in the area of reorganization, digitalization, sales performance and communication for trade shows. We’re also doing this because we’ve known and respected each other for years now, which means we can work very efficiently to serve your needs. Of course, you can also hire us separately, but you’d be missing out...

Get in touch with us. A (hybrid) workshop is often a good place to start to get to know each other.

As a leading consulting agency for family businesses, we support owners and top management in creating new opportunities and shaping their future. In this regard, we’re specialists in the key entrepreneurial design fields of strategy, innovation & new business, digitalization, leadership & organization, marketing & sales, operations and finance as well as in sustainably eliminating company crises through restructuring and insolvency consulting.

We are one of the leading owner-operated communications agencies in German-speaking Europe – with an optimal international network, and we are completely integrated in the disciplines of PR, advertising, digital solutions, political communications and multichannel marketing. Our passion is for complex topics and change processes. We are also a major driver behind the “digital broadcasting station” and in general content marketing.

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