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What is a Trade Show?

Scrapbook Update has been receiving a campaign of emails and tweets encouraging us to write about and promote an upcoming “virtual trade show” event in the scrapbook industry. We will not be doing so, and I am here now as editor to explain why.

It is tempting, as society is taken over by technology, to think that everything can be replaced and even made better by technology. That is not always the case. To learn why that is not the case with a trade show, you have to first consider: What is a trade show?

A trade show is not a shopping mall.

A trade show is not a place for buyers to run through with list in hand, checking off items and getting in and out as fast as possible like a frantic last-minute holiday shopper with presents still to wrap and dinner to cook.

There are many different ways for crafts industry buyers to view and order products: reps, distributors, buying groups, vendor websites. A trade show (in any format) simply isn’t necessary just to facilitate actual commerce transactions like it was 20 years ago. The limited perception of trade-show-as-shopping-mall sets everyone involved up for failure, because it then colors the choices that the participants (both vendors and buyers) make on-site about how to spend their time and how to spend their resources. Ultimately, the tight focus on buying and selling – which all involve recognize can be completed other ways – leaves everyone afterwards feeling unfulfilled and wondering what the point of the event was.

So if the point of a trade show is not buying and selling, what is it?

A trade show is about people, about relationships, about sharing the knowledge that is inside all of the attendees’ heads, and about building on all of that together as a group.

The real value of a trade show is in the conversation struck up with a fellow attendee that leads to learning something unexpected that helps your business, or even leads to a relationship that creates a new business. The value of a trade show is in confidential one-on-one conversations (not ones that are broadcast over the internet and even recorded). The value of a trade show is in the booth you only notice because it has attracted a crowd, or the lunch line chat that sends you somewhere you’d never have made time to go. The value of a trade show is in sitting in a class and turning to the person next to you to see what they are doing when you miss something, or being able to get a helpful prompt from a teacher’s assistant. It’s being able to get a quick replacement for a piece of paper that you mess up using, or for a defective class kit item, so that it doesn’t derail your whole class experience.

I could, literally, go on and on about the value in an on-site trade show. It’s there for the taking…if you reach for it. If you ask the questions, look hard at the samples (and notice details), attend the seminars and demos, and notice the people around you and engage them, you create the value and get out of the show experience what you put into it. The value of a trade show is in…presence. It is spontaneity, interaction, and physically touching items. The value of a trade show is in the unexpected, the unplanned.

And despite my statements about them not being shopping malls, the internet hasn’t made trade shows completely redundant for purchasing craft products. Anyone who has ever shopped online knows that color display on a computer is very inaccurate. Seeing a product in person is the only real way to know its true color, and lots of other details like paper weight and texture don’t convey well online either. Just watching a demo of a tool is very different from having the demonstrator hand it you and say “try it!”. Getting touchy-feely with product definitely has its advantages.

Believe it or not, I learned this value of in-person events in an ironic place that you might least expect: the tech world. While it might seem that the technology industry, where people are quick to adopt and become heavy users of new technologies, would be first to abandon the concept of  “old school” in-person events, I found the exact opposite to be true. That industry downright treasures the handshake, understanding the value of sitting down over a cup of coffee to bat ideas around or share information, or of a group discussion in a seminar room.

That’s not to say that the tech industry is a trade show dinosaur. Instead, they’ve adapted their events to the new modern era. Their few “old school” style trade shows with aisles of booth displays aren’t put on for buyers as much as for marketing to press, to create word-of-mouth marketing, and to provide education to the industry’s top echelon of participants. In many instances the products on display are prototypes that aren’t even going to be on sale in the near future. (For a comparison in the crafts industry, reference what Craftwell did by exhibiting at several CHA shows before the release of the e-craft machine). The majority of the tech industry’s events are conference-style, focusing on seminars and speeches and roundtable discussions. The focus is on ideas and making connections, not on commerce.

One of my favorite tech events, Photoshop World, is a kind of hybrid of the old and new formats. Staged to educate professional photographers and designers about Adobe’s Photoshop and Lightroom products and help improve their photography skills, the event includes both a vendor floor and a heavy concentration on classroom sessions. However – unlike most such traditional events – the classroom sessions and the vendor floor do not take place at the same time. The classroom sessions take place in the morning and evening, and the vendor floor is open in the afternoon. This way, vendors can attend the sessions themselves, and do not have to compete with the sessions for the attention of the attendees. I’ve found it greatly enhances my event experience to not feel pulled in multiple directions – do I attend this session, or see more of the vendor floor?

Trade-show-as-shopping-mall was the 20th century way of doing business. We all need to start taking on the 21st century perspective on doing business at shows, an emphasis on people. The Craft & Hobby Association has begun to make that shift in its format and offerings this year with the introduction of the conference format, but ultimately, the change in philosophy has to take root in the psyche of the show attendees for it to be successful. We all have to decide what it is that we want out of the experience. Are we willing to settle for a shopping mall? Or do we want the chance to learn, to create opportunity, and work to take our businesses to the next level? Do we want the opportunity to really do business? Or do we want to sit on our couches and shop over the internet?

One last thing…if you think you aren’t interested in “doing business”, that you are content to stay quietly at home and do your shopping and watch a few seminars online, there is something that you need to remember. It is innovation and new ideas and change and cooperation – people – that keep an industry developing and healthy. If everyone stays home, none of those things happen, leading to stagnation and decline in the industry. If people do come together and build something, and you weren’t part of the building of it, you will soon be left behind.

Simply put: Getting a group of people from an industry together in one place to discuss and do business cannot be replaced by a series of video broadcasts. Face-to-face meetings are critical not only to the development of individual businesses, but to the health of the industry as a whole.

Thinking in this new way about trade shows requires stepping outside our comfort zones for most of us. It requires undoing years or even decades of lessons about what a trade show is and how a successful one works. We have to stop thinking about trade shows in terms of dollars of product bought and sold. We have to start judging them in terms of things like the cementing of customer relationships, advancing marketing goals, professional education, and building networks. We need to stop thinking in terms of the quantity of the attendees and focus on the quality of the attendees and the quality of our interactions with them.

Take responsibility for your business’s future and your industry’s future. Don’t do the usual. Challenge yourself to step outside your comfort zone and make your trade show experience something that is productive for you and your business.


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