The Future of Trade Shows: In-Person, Online or Something Else?

Top row: Tricia Carey, Mostafiz Uddin; Middle row: Andrew Olah, Olaf Schmidt, Sebastian Klinder; Bottom row: Guglielmo Olearo

Trade show organizers hope to see physical trade shows resume later this year, but are still proceeding with efforts to provide virtual content to run alongside the main event.  

That was the word from several organizers of international fabric trade shows who gathered for an online panel during the June 23-24 edition of Kingpins24. Executives from Kingpins, Premiere Vision, Texworld, Intertextile Shanghai, Bangladesh Denim Expo and BlueZone at Munich Fabric Start discussed what’s ahead for trade shows during and after the global pandemic, which has restricted travel and large gatherings for the past four months. 

The panel was moderated by Tricia Carey, director global business development for denim at Lenzing Fibers, maker of Tencel and other sustainable fibers. 

Trade show organizers are looking at ways to virtually connect their exhibitors with attendees until they are able to host physical shows again. For Kingpins, the solution was Kingpins24, a two-day online event featuring interviews, panel discussions, trend presentations and product demos. 

“It’s a complementary tool we can use,” said Kingpins founder Andrew Olah. “Going forward, it’s going to be more and more important.” 

Sebastian Klinder, managing director of Munich Fabric Start / BlueZone, acknowledged that the textile industry has had to learn to hold meetings and presentations virtually over services such as Zoom. These virtual meetings give people located across the globe the opportunity to connect online.

“It would be very difficult to gather this group physically at one table,” he said. 

Guglielmo Olearo, international director of Premiere Vision, and Olaf Schmidt, vice president of textile and textile technologies for Messe Frankfurt, which organizes Texworld and Intertextile Shanghai, both said their companies had already been building digital solutions designed to run alongside their physical shows before the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Virtual trade shows” has been a “buzzword” in the past few months, Carey said. “The question arises if people as social beings can be satisfied exclusively with digital experiences without real-life interaction.”

Both Olearo and Schmidt said selling textiles in a digital environment is difficult. 

“You have to see the fabric,” Schmidt said. “In the last two, three, four weeks, we saw so many digital solutions for our industry…and so many horrible solutions.”

READY TO GET BACK TO WORK?

Organizers like Schmidt and Klinder, who both hold shows in Germany, may be able to return to the physical format as soon as September, when the German government will begin to allow in-person trade shows to resume. Olearo, who organizes the main Premiere Vision show in Paris, said he believes his show will reopen in a few months. 

It was a similar story for Mostafiz Uddin, owner and managing director of Denim Expert Ltd. and founder and CEO of Bangladesh Apparel Exchange and Denim Expo, which is still on track to open in November in Dhaka, Bangladesh. 

In Dhaka, we have no problem,” he said. “We are waiting to welcome everyone in November. We are ready.”

Uddin said without trade shows, it’s impossible for the industry to get back to work. 

“I am confident that after the crisis, there is a higher request to have physical trade shows again, perhaps even more than before,” Schmidt said. 

New rules such as one-way show aisles can be implemented to ensure the safety of exhibitors and attendees, Schmidt said, but questions remain whether shows will primarily draw a local audience. 

“It’s easy to organize a local event [but] travel restrictions could impact international participation and attendance,” he said. 

Carey noted that in New York, most businesses plan to keep their physical locations shuttered through the summer. Like the others in the group, she is looking forward to returning to the physical show format. 

“To me, the biggest obstacle is getting on an airplane,” she said. “I have less fear of going to a trade show. It’s just the venue logistics that have changed.”

Kingpins24 was organized after Kingpins’ New York show was cancelled due to event and travel restrictions. Kingpins is watching the situation in New York and Amsterdam to determine if those shows can be held in the fall. 

“Will we have a New York show?” Olah said. “Will they want to travel to New York? Do people want to go to Amsterdam? What we don’t know is will there be a second wave?”

RESET AND COORDINATE? 

As the industry makes plans to return to business following the pandemic, “are we  looking at an industry reset with trade shows?” Carey asked, acknowledging the “travel obstacles, budget reductions and staff cuts” are likely ahead in the future.
Pre-pandemic, denim trade shows occupied 52 calendar days annually, she said, asking the group if it’s possible to coordinate trade show dates in the future. 

“We are willing and ready to cooperate,” Uddin said. “We can all discuss and find a way to do something together.”

Coordinating show dates would give attendees the opportunity to visit multiple shows during a single visit. 

“It’s a difficult question,” Klinder said. “We try to inform and exchange with other shows. But do we really need three shows in three months at a distance of probably not more than 600 miles? This is crazy.” 

Olearo noted that all the shows did coexist before the pandemic, but he said the crisis may change that. 

“We have to be very careful to serve the needs of the market,” he said. 

INVITE CONSUMERS? 

In recent years, some trade shows have had success by including events and activities targeting a consumer audience.  

“Do we need to add more direct-to-consumer elements to the shows?” Carey asked the group. 

Both Klinder and Schmidt dismissed the idea, saying they don’t see a need for it. 

“It’s a fascinating option,” Olearo said. “It’s really far away from the essence of a professional show. It may happen in other sectors, like food, but I don’t see it for Premiere Vision. Consumers, I have no added value to bring them.”

But Olah said Kingpins has always looked to open their events to consumers, what he called the B2G — or business-to-geek — market. 

“We’ve done all sorts of experiments and we’re going to continue to do it,” 

One of those efforts was Denim Days, a direct-to-consumer denim festival held in New York and Nashville and modeled after the ongoing event in Amsterdam. Lenzing participated in Denim Days in New York, Nashville and Amsterdam. 

“As an exhibitor, it was a matter of adjusting our communication,” Carey said. 

Want to watch the entire panel discussion from Kingpings24? It’s available here until July 7.

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