The future of trade shows and exhibitions

Mariëtte du Toit-Helmbold, CEO of Cape Town Tourism, shares her views on the future of trade shows and exhibitions.

1. It’s all about connecting

The industry and trade will always need platforms to connect. "Connect" and "convert" are the keywords. Despite the onset of technology, tourism is in essence a “people’s industry” and business will still be conducted face-to-face. Connecting is about relationships, and trade shows facilitate relationships and partnerships between colleagues and new business associates. This is why, in my mind, travel trade shows will always have a key role in the sales cycle as a lead-generating and relationship-building agent. Technology will never replace the need for face-to-face engagement, it must be used to enhance interaction and provide broader representation and participation.

2. Consider the model

Traditional models of trade shows and exhibitions are archaic and must be revisited in line with changed trends and buying behaviour. Technology and the web have connected the world and revolutionised the way we communicate, buy and travel. The trade show, event and conferencing model must be adapted and allowance made for niche trade events – golf shows, safari shows, and urban shows, for example – while also distinguishing between trade and consumer shows. Allowance must be made for industry learning and networking at fringe events, as well as workshops focused on trends and new developments. WTM and ITB have both embraced this model with virtual live streaming and good digital support.

I predict that trade shows will continue to run successfully around the world, but based on a different model. Trade shows and venues that embrace technology as an enabler, providing state-of-the-art infrastructure, free WiFi and virtual conferencing/meeting platforms to attendees and exhibitors, will have a definite competitive advantage. At the same time, exhibitors must revisit their trade show and exhibition participation, investing in digital solutions to reduce the dependency on and costs associated with printed material. Smaller, smarter exhibition spaces are needed.

3. Trade shows combined with roadshows

South African Tourism already combines trade shows very well with roadshows, and reports from the industry are that the latter provide very good return on investment and more intimate and interactive direct-selling opportunities. Many now opt for a minimum presence at trade shows and a more extensive presence at roadshows, where specific markets and interest groups can be targeted. 

The same format could be adopted for Indaba, which could be reduced to three focused trade days with a pre- or post-event roadshow co-ordinated by South African Tourism in association with provincial and regional tourism bodies, where trade can choose between a menu of itineraries and destinations. Cities and regions can, in association with the industry, host the trade and media on these roadshows, giving them a first-hand experience of the destination and what they will be selling or writing about.

This means that DMOs and industry can save a significant part of the costs currently being spent on Indaba with less floor space and resources needed at the show. It will also in all likelihood attract a new generation of trade and media, like top travel bloggers and exhibitors eager to participate in the new model and roadshows.

Smaller, niche exhibitions can be created. Nowadays, with the multiplicity of information platforms, any destination can showcase itself with awesome videos via its dedicated YouTube channel, choose and share stellar photography via its Flickr account, share the passion for its brand via its Facebook page or have conversations with its community of followers and potential travellers through its Twitter feeds. It is not an either/or approach, but rather about striking a new technology-enhanced and customer-centric balance where trade shows and exhibitions are concerned to enable the industry to be even more effective and resourceful.

4. Virtual trade shows

One thing the economic downturn has produced in the sector is a tremendous rise in virtual shows and meetings.

Virtual trade shows can save a lot on expenses and provide extended brand exposure. The one thing a virtual trade show lacks and which is really the driving force behind successful conversion, is the human factor. People are social beings and no matter how technologically advanced our society may get with various communication devices, people have an innate desire for real social contact. Face-to-face contact has real power when it comes to influencing others and distinguishing one destination from another. The social connectivity produced by face-to-face contact also grows relationships which, in turn, drive long-term sales and partnerships. People tend to do business based on trusting relationships, not purely on economic benefits.

Again, it is about striking a balance and using technology to enhance communication and services, rather than replacing human interaction. Marketing should be a multi-faceted and multi-channelled communication discipline. It is about becoming more technologically savvy and more selective about which platforms to participate on, and to what extent.

Advantages of virtual trade shows

A virtual trade show is a cross between a webcast meeting and a video game – and it's the next big trend in travel trade shows. Although a mere 1% of all trade shows are now held online, industry experts predict that by 2015, more than 25% of trade shows will be conducted in virtual environments. That's a market you can't afford to ignore.

Like online meetings, a virtual trade show can be simple or breathtakingly realistic and complex. The simplest assemble a series of pages, each one a virtual booth for an exhibitor, plus instant messaging so exhibitors and attendees can talk in real time. The more complex are complete environments like high-level video games or online worlds like Second Life. In these, each participant controls an avatar. VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) can allow you to talk to attendees, and you can easily email brochures or allow attendees to download them.

Susan A Friedmann wrote about the following advantages of virtual trade shows:

1. Triumph over tighter budgets

Imagine a trade show with no costs for transportation, shipping, hotels, hospitality, or booths, and just a minimal cost for exhibit space. That's a virtual trade show.

With travel costs rising and travel budgets falling, more industries are turning to virtual trade shows as a less expensive way to showcase their wares. Electronic and high-tech companies are naturally comfortable with the online format, but they're no longer alone.

2. Spread your wings

All too often, the sheer size of trade show investment keeps the marketing department stuck in a traditional rut of "what worked last year". The new medium will free you to experiment with innovative exhibit ideas – and rapidly change the ones that don't work. At a virtual trade show, you don't need to worry about the flow of foot traffic or many other design constraints. You can also recycle and extend the lifespan of the online presence created.

Moreover, you'll have helped with designing your display. To set up on virtual trade show sites takes less than an hour, and the software is supplied. Depending on the site, you will have an exciting array of multimedia tools at your service. Some offer VoIP, so you can chat by voice with attendees. Most offer instant messaging capabilities, so you can chat in real time with attendees and keep several conversations going at once.

3. Open a stall in a new market

Not only will you be able to test fresh approaches, you will also have the freedom to explore new markets without fear of blowing the annual budget. Because of the low overheads and set-up costs, you can dare to attend non-traditional trade shows that you might not otherwise have attempted. This is particularly useful when connecting for the first time with new markets, to establish relationships and potential partnerships. It can then be followed up by a physical roadshow or exhibition.

4. The future is green

Compared to traditional trade shows, virtual trade shows are "greener". Lowering environmental impact is an increasingly important goal for many companies. Tax incentives for cutting fuel costs are also likely to increase, making virtual exhibits an even more attractive proposition.

5. Follow that lead!

Traditional trade shows often generate exciting leads. Unfortunately, 80% of those leads are never followed up – a statistic bound to discourage even the most enthusiastic marketing professional. The reasons are myriad: disconnects between marketing and sales departments, the difficulties of reading hand-scribbled names and addresses, the tedium of entering contact information by hand into databases.

However, virtual trade shows collect the data for you – and most include built-in lead management software. Suddenly tracking those leads becomes simple. In addition, many systems offer tags so you can make notes on attendees or companies, making it easy to follow up. You can also keep tabs on both staff and attendee activities.

Virtual trade show systems generally allow you to run analytics as soon as the show is over. Instead of entering all the data separately, the virtual trade show tracks and analyses it for you. You are able to start following up leads immediately, which can greatly improve your return on investment.

6. Market to the 21st-Century customer

Most important of all, virtual trade shows will help you reach out to the new digital-travel generation. Over time, more and more corporate decision-makers will be at least as comfortable with the virtual world as they are with text on a page.

Plenty of people now in their thirties could use a mouse before they could clutch a pencil, and they spend their spare time on Second Life and in other virtual realms. A virtual trade show will seem as natural to them as the telephone does to older people.

This demographic trend is bound to continue. Gaining experience now in the virtual world will give you an edge in marketing to this vast demographic.

The virtual trade show may never completely replace the great exhibit halls. Face-to-face contact is just too essential for many people, especially when travel decisions must be affirmed by personal recommendation. However, a wise marketing professional will use this exciting new technology to reach out to new customers while staying connected to current clients. It is essentially one more vital tool in your arsenal, and you can use it effectively to improve the bottom line of your company or destination.


We have the opportunity to re-imagine the future of trade shows like Indaba, which could and should become the premier African tourism trade showcase, part of a year-round dynamic trade programme co-ordinated by SAT, but supported by provincial and regional tourism bodies with active participation from the industry.

The African continent is considered by many to be the next tourism frontier and South Africa must position itself as the market leader within the African continent. Stronger partnerships and participation from the rest of Africa are needed to turn Indaba into a mega-African showcase. The event should be part of a strategy to stimulate more visits from the African continent to South Africa, and to attract more trade individuals who already do business with the rest of Africa, but who might not yet attend Indaba. 

Much dialogue is needed around tourism as a serious business sector, and Indaba could play host to such events where mainstream business and media can be invited to look at closer alignment and partnerships with tourism.

Furthermore, if we can raise the profile of Indaba to a tourism trade event of international significance, it could be a platform for the UNWTO to bring tourism ministers together like they already do at ITB and WTM, with a strong focus on developing economies.

Let us take a step back, look into the future and re-imagine a platform like Indaba so that it can develop into a powerful international platform with a distinct African flavour – directly contributing to measurable tourism growth, connecting the industry across Africa with the world, and providing real opportunity for knowledge-sharing.  

It is Africa’s time to shine.

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