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Building the Future of the Video Industry Trade Show

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The current crisis is forcing industries to reappraise business to business communication in ways that will long outlast the COVID-19 outbreak. In particular, the cancellation of trade shows and decisions not to risk attendance at international exhibitions has focused attention on the long-term sustainability of such events and whether there isn't a way to do them that is more efficient and has lighter environmental footprint.

"Sometimes major events can have unexpected consequences," says Mark Harrison, managing director of DPP, an international business network for the media industry. "Now it feels as if the debate that was already happening about the merits or otherwise of large-scale industry events has been sharpened by the outbreak. Suddenly it's no longer a matter of 'should' people be rethinking the formats for big events; they have to."

The immediate response among event organizers and vendors alike to the potential or actual loss of trade show attendance has been to port communication online. That's not too much of a stretch, since many companies have extensive digital marketing ready to complement their on-the-ground presence. And plenty of companies in the streaming media space have their own solutions at the ready.

Of course, even the best virtual solution is a poor replacement for the face-to-face human interaction that real trade shows offer, but for the first time, vendors and trade show organizers are seriously discussing the big picture as well as the granular details.

Events Move Online

Physical events which have shifted online-only include the WAN Summit New York run by publisher Capacity Media; the 2020 World Tour Sydney run by CRM software firm Salesforce, which was expected to draw more than 20,000 attendees; and The Geneva International Motor Show whose cancellation led to many manufacturers putting out high-quality videos on YouTube.

Vendors are changing tack too. Vizrt, as one example, is launching a pair of online channels (VizrTV and NewTekTV) for CABSAT in Dubai (rescheduled from March to October) and NAB while retaining a presence at both shows.

Object Matrix tied branding of its hybrid cloud storage product with a Hybrid NAB 2020 presence. Claiming the initiative as a world first, the company said it will host physical booths both on-prem in Vegas and in its offices based in Cardiff (Wales, UK) with all the "action" from Cardiff streamed live including demos, walk by meetings, and also interviews with customers and prospects who drop in. (It is also offering "an abundance of Welsh beer, Whisky and Cheese" though not, presumably, virtually).

The IABM, which represents broadcast equipment manufacturers, will send its TV crew to events "wherever safe to do so," to provide coverage for members unable to attend in person.

In addition, where major shows are cancelled or postponed, the IABM plans to provide an online experience which encompasses as many of the announcements and trends as possible, "using all the contacts and resources at our disposal, so that the wider industry have a go-to source for information."

These, though, are temporary business continuity responses. "Nothing will eliminate the need to engage with customers, partners or colleagues in meaningful ways," says Jennifer Overbaugh, VP global marketing, Imagine Communications. "Regardless of how far technology progresses, it simply can't replace sitting across the table from someone or the feeling of an audience's live energy during a great presentation." (Like most exhibitors, Imagine is still planning to attend NAB, which is still on as of March 11.)

As Nick Pearce-Tomenius, sales & marketing director at Object Matrix, puts it, "People buy from people. Trust and relationships are not built over social networks or virtual meeting rooms."

Beyond the Current Crisis

COVID-19 and climate change are giving the broadcast media and streaming industry wider pause for thought. What is the carbon footprint of a mega trade event like CES, IFA, or Mobile World Congress, with 100,000+ people travelling from all over the world converging on one place? Can this really be justified in the face of the huge challenges around global warming?

"Virtual events are not just a reactive solution," says virtual event conference organiser Communique. "With greater frequency, organizations are choosing virtual conferences over in-person events to reduce travel costs and carbon footprints."

The nature of the mega trade show has arguably needed a shake-up for years. Its evolution will now be hastened.

"For too long, the M&E industry has been heavily reliant on a few big trade shows," says Rob Ettridge, partner, chief client officer, Red Lorry Yellow Lorry. "IBC and NAB often dictate product launch strategies for vendors. It's a huge financial commitment for vendors, a 'needle in the haystack' approach to new business. This has got the industry thinking, 'Is there a better way to spend my sales and marketing budget?'"

His advice to companies is to think about more sustained and integrated sales and marketing programs, rather than one-off "big bangs." "Smaller, higher-value, and more focused customer and partner events will drive interest among specific audience groups," Ettridge says. "Virtual events and high-quality targeted sales content, which also both serve an educational function, can engage the right prospect at the right time—and deliver much more bang for your sales and marketing buck."

Local and regional in-person gatherings could actually become stronger—especially if they can be reached easily by public transport, and if the organisers can show they are committed to all the things that should now be second nature, such as sustainability, accessibility, diversity, and business value.

"The big challenge will be international events," says Harrison. "Very high value, in-person boutique events could remain strong if they follow the right core principles.  But very large international events will need to innovate hugely and quickly if they are not to be disrupted by smarter, more cost-effective, and less high impact ways of doing business.

He adds, "I go to CES in Las Vegas each year; and above the din of the hype you can hear the planet weeping."

No one is suggesting that the international trade show has had its day. They continue to define the timing of product development/launch and provide important industry focal points for sales, discussion, press, market influencing, and networking.

"Removing trade shows entirely would be counter-productive as the networking element—and the ability to see new products in the flesh—are very important," says Joss Armitage, strategist and content developer at Jump PR. "However, flights alone to trades shows are hard to justify from an environmental perspective. There's a macro issue at play here that can't be ignored."

There's No Substitute for Face-to-Face

IBC acknowledges the growing awareness about the ways in which waste reduction and environmental impact can be minimized. It points out that many of its visitors will have in excess of 40 meetings during their time at the show, with business partners from all around their world. 

"Attending IBC is a very efficient and environmentally friendly way of having these business meetings, as opposed to travelling around multiple times to achieve the same objectives," says IBC head of marketing James Laker. "IBC is packed with workshops, conferences, exhibitor events, and activity, which means that it is sometimes impossible for a visitor to be at all the things that they want to participate in.

"Video conference technology can help fill in the gaps, and also serve to record events which visitors can re-visit after the event. Whilst nothing can replace the impact of participating in person, these VR services can increase accessibility and reach."

The IABM, one of six institutions that owns IBC, says its research has consistently shown that physical trade shows are highly valued precisely because of face-to-face transactions.

"This is even more the case as the industry moves towards collaborative working," asserts Peter White, CEO, IABM. "Clearly it is impossible to carry on with the many face-to-face meetings at the present time, but my feeling is that the industry will be very much looking forward to returning to it when it is safe to do so. In the meantime, the industry needs to take advantage of every opportunity to 'meet up' online to keep business flowing in every way it can."

Investment in trade shows represented 45% of the marketing budget (on average) for media tech suppliers, according to the latest IABM Supply Trends Survey. This percentage has stayed pretty much constant over the last three years. 18% say that this investment is growing, 49% stable, and 29% say it is declining (4% do not exhibit).

"Vendors and buyers invest in trade shows because they are highly cost-effective—and also because humans are fundamentally social animals," says White. "They also wouldn't be continuing to invest at this level if there were a more cost-effective 'remote' alternative that still delivered results."

Virtual Event Innovation

This is a fair point. The beneficiaries right now of COVID-19 and climate change are video conferencing providers such as Zoom and LogMeIn, which have seen a surge in demand and stock prices (Zoom's share price was up 40% by end of February). But while video conferencing services are improving each year, for professional, multi-person and multi-venue applications, "the tech too often lets you down and ruins the user experience," says Ettridge. "It can never be as interactive as a face-to-face meeting."

Paul Moore, head of innovation for media at Atos, describes current common webinar-type technologies for remote events as "soulless."

"The question is, how to, at least minimally, recreate the event experience without being there? Webinars and hangouts don't do it. VR telepresence devices are nowhere near common enough to do it, and in any case spending several hours, let alone several days, with current headsets would not be an option, even if sufficient image quality were there (which it isn't)."

Moore's list (Law?) of characteristics necessary for a virtual event includes the following:

  • Immersivity – Somehow people need to feel that they are ‘there' participating, not alone in their home or cubicle.
  • Interactivity – How can we better interact with technologies, really feel like we are seeing and touching things
  • Collective experiences - that are, at the same time, somehow personal
  • Networking – The typical networking app that people have now for events is no replacement. How can we make these better?
  • Serendipity – How to create opportunities for fortuitous meetings, for stumbling across ideas/people/technologies/products that you weren't looking for?
  • Fun – Let's face it, many people see attendance at one of these events as an opportunity for some fun. But webinars are not fun.

Still, virtual events platforms have evolved, and as pointed out in a recent article on Streaming Media, they're much more interactive and even fun than they used to be.

5G could be the holy grail that delivers faster higher-quality true telepresence (AR/VR) which can replicate the intimacy and tactility of personal interaction.

"It has always seemed a little ironic that we work in an audiovisual industry, yet we rely so much on being in the same venue together multiple times a year," observes Armitage. "We think that there does need to be a greater use of virtual technologies going forward, but it's hard to see those working as a complete replacement for trade shows."

Most of the work that goes into planning and executing a brick-and-mortar conference is the same with hosting a virtual conference. The goals, speakers/topics, sponsors, registration, and attendee promoting activities are essentially the same.

Communique, which specialises in this sort of thing, suggests some good housekeeping. Attendees joining from their PC will have a much shorter attention span compared to a physical conference. So, shorten the presentations (30-minute webinar presentations are found to work best).  Since attendees are not traveling, they will not all be in the same time zone. So run live webinars timed for the bulk of your audience and offer them on-demand for everyone else.

The Role of Event Organisers

When individual companies retreat to a virtual event presence, this can only be a piecemeal response. Leaving aside the poor-by-comparison experience of remote event technology, what role should event organisers be playing in creating an integrated virtual exhibition alongside the "real" thing?

"It would be amazing if a trade show actually provided the technology to host virtual guests as well as physical should the worst happen," Pearce-Tomenius says. "We pay enough for the floor space and presence at a show that the organisers should be providing backup options. Today there are none."

"Well-established brands and trade bodies such as IBC, NAB, SVG and IABM have a huge industry role to play and a big opportunity to take their brands well beyond their big physical events," Ettridge says. "It'll require a wider industry change in mind-set from the 'one big event' focus. Some have already begun this transition, but there's a lot more to do."

The physical won't simply be replaced by the virtual. As Harrison points out, the rise of social media and the rise of cafe culture happened in lockstep. "But I think we'll quickly become much clearer about what we want from an event, what the costs and benefits are, and what event organisers will have to demonstrate to be credible."

He adds, "In some respects the technology for a really big show, with the scale to drive big revenue, is more mature than for low-cost events. Think esports; think arena shows; think virtual production technology. The media industry, however, may not be a big enough sector to support such experiences. But most trade shows and conferences are business ventures. New business models and formats will need to be found."

From a marketer's standpoint, trade events offer a range of opportunities, including to demo, educate, relationship-build, sell and inform.

"The old model saw companies pour large sums of money into trying to knock it out of the park on most or all of these areas," says Overbaugh. "These days, budgets are being watched much more closely with ROI data informing what aspects of certain shows are truly successful and where marketing dollars are best diverted or saved entirely. From that perspective, the tipping point has been reached. Presence at the major events is still important, but a flashy presence is no longer viewed as the only ticket to a successful show."

Put another way: does the cost/benefit of mass congregation international trade events need reappraising?

"Not from a sales and relationship building point of view," says Pearce-Tomenius. "We need events that bring those additional walk-by business meetings that supplement the many organised meetings we have. Language is also a barrier using online or virtual methods. Engaging in comprehensive workflow discussions when both parties struggle to speak each other's languages is best done face to face."

Matters are perhaps different from a news dissemination and technology perspective. "Maybe fully virtual trade shows can remove the need to physically demo new kit or workflows. This would certainly reduce costs, [and] require less space and less people to travel."

Could a trade show brand a virtual trade event which encompasses everything rather than vendor and industry communications becoming piecemeal?

"Sounds interesting," responds Laker. "Part of the appeal of broad, immersive events such as IBC is that they provide an environment where there is a focus that allows visitors to dive in and explore, get exposure to new ideas within certain parameters. A challenge with [what is described] might be the loss of focus. But we are always open to innovations so perhaps we should talk!" 

Never Look Back

The health emergency is forcing companies and individuals to break down barriers, both real and imagined, in order to continue to work with some semblance of normality.

"This cultural shift, as well as other factors such as the growing awareness of the ecological impact of air travel, will hasten global adoption and further the case for remote communication and collaboration technologies," says Adam Cox, analyst, Futuresource Consulting. "This is likely to have a seismic impact on how we work in the future."

"The tech for virtual gatherings isn't perfect - largely because connectivity is uneven," Harrison says. "But if we all decide to make it work, it soon will. That's what's going to change now: we'll have the will to make virtual collaboration normal."

Photo credit: Sorbis / Shutterstock.com

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