Are trade fairs here to stay?

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Roger Sherman, managing director of Pattern, which represents the Laser Munich show in the UK, says good planning can help you get the best from an exhibition

Why do you visit foreign trade fairs? What is it that persuades you to make that trip to what is probably a rather urban location in a foreign country, where the weather may not be too bright and where many people might not speak your language? In the past few years the number of visitors to trade fairs round the world has, with some exceptions, shown no sign of increasing. This is a matter of concern to the organisers since, without the expected number of visitors, exhibitors will not return next time. Is the attraction of trade fairs fading? Have the internet and other improved forms of hi-tech communication persuaded some company representatives that it is no longer necessary to take a couple of days out of the office to view the competition, when their websites offer as much information as is required?

The answers to these questions are not straightforward. To begin with, it is no longer so simple for an engineer or reasonably junior executive to obtain permission to leave the office for a couple of days to travel abroad, however useful his or her visit might be. Money is tighter, companies’ staff numbers are pared to the bone, and employees are generally busier. The question ‘Is your journey really necessary?’ is one that is asked constantly by the accountants running the firm!

What arguments can a trade fair organiser muster to prise the potential visitor out of his or her office? Well, in these days of global business, any trade fair worth its salt must be able to present a global view to the visitor. Regional or national shows have their attractions but, for the importer and exporter, an international range of exhibitors is critical. Also, full details of what is to be seen have to be made available as early as possible, to enable accommodation and travel arrangements to be made. If you realise that Laser in Munich next June has a list of exhibitors to die for, you don’t want to be told about it in May, because your schedule is usually full a month or so ahead.

And trade fairs have to provide that bit extra now, to ensure that you, the visitor, really enjoy the experience of attending it and that you feel wanted and welcomed. It’s all a question of ‘value-added’ features. If, for example, you knew that you could make appointments through the trade fair website with an exhibiting company that you had been trying to reach for months from your office – that might persuade you to travel. This ‘match-making’ service is one that an increasing number of trade fairs offer – look out for it. German visitors in particular like to have their visiting schedule precisely organised before they walk through the entrance doors. This can be more easily arranged now.

Some trade fair organisers are also looking at the option of allowing all pre-registered visitors to have their names on the trade fair website too, so that exhibitors and visitors may make pre-arranged meetings; this of course potentially runs up against spurious data protection restrictions, but with appropriate disclaimers, this should be possible soon. If your entrance ticket included a free lunch, or free travel on the transport systems of the town, would this make it more likely that you would attend? Possibly, since it removes hassle and saves you money. Most people are used to booking hotels and accommodation online now, so most trade fairs allow you to pre-register and pay online, well before you turn up. No more queuing at the entrance and filling in tiresome forms with a biro that doesn’t work! And no wasted hours, ambling through aisles looking for companies who are too busy to see you.

In all these ways, exhibitions are working with, not against, the internet; in the marketing mix, trade fairs remain the only medium where the seller, the buyer – and the product – can meet, discuss, negotiate and specify on neutral territory. They remain unique, but the pressure is on – we are all more choosy, our time is critical, our pockets not so deep. It has long been said of trade fairs that ‘what you get out of it depends on what you put into it’, but that is also increasingly true for the organiser. If they want to maintain the level of

qualified visitors and thus the reputation of their event, they too must spend and innovate. I have faith that they will and that the best trade fairs will survive and prosper.