Recently our team attended the Air-Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration (AHR) Expo. The show was teeming with attendees and excitement. We’re not exaggerating when we say you could feel the energy in the air. (No pun intended.) After having to cancel the show in 2021 people were longing to reunite and eager to do business. In fact, this year the AHR Expo boasted 30,678 attendees! 

Huge crowds at AHR 2022

Being there, and at many other trade shows, reminded us of what the Editor of Exhibitor Magazine, Travis Stanton, suggested to exhibiting companies in the January issue:

There has never been a more important time to be visible, quell clients’ concerns, and reclaim your share of the market.

We’ve been thinking about what we’ve learned from the trade show comeback. Here are some of our thoughts and observations.

1. Companies Are Planning for a Post-COVID World

And just like that, the data is indicating that most companies have returned to in-person events or are planning to. Rather than being paralyzed into doing nothing, companies are instead taking the attitude of mitigating risk and returning to in-person business events as safely as possible. Trade shows provide brands with advantages and opportunities not easily duplicated by any other marketing method. The results from the latest Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR) bear this out. In the first of six reports in in their Insights Series, 94% of respondents to the survey plan to return to exhibiting live in 2022.

2. Construction-Related Industries Are Helping to Lead the Way

Although trade shows are being staged in all industries, construction-related shows are back with a bang. As trade shows began reemerging in 2021, all eyes were on World of Concrete. It was the largest industry show of its kind to return.  Since then, many skilled-labor and construction-related events have safely taken place, such as the AHR Expo, The International Roofing Expo (IRE) and The International Builders’ Show (IBS). Stats are out on IBS, which boasted 70,000 attendees, and 1200 Exhibitors, making it one of the largest shows to take place since the pandemic. People in construction businesses are a tactile bunch. They love to touch, feel, climb, build, compete, and ride. Pretty tough to do that virtually.

Photo Credit: International Builders’ Show

3. People…People Who Need People

If having digital fatigue has taught us anything, it turns out that we need the energy of being together and the inspiration that occurs when we gather face-to-face. We’ve heard variations on that theme from many of our clients that we’ve interviewed lately.

It sure was great to be back! There was huge value to being here in person – creating business, meeting our customers, and prospecting new leads. (World of Concrete)

I can’t put a price on the number of relationships I made at this show. (International Security Conference West 2021)

You never know if you’re going to meet someone with small product needs, or the owner and purchaser for one of the largest companies in the country. This is a unique value in meeting in person and I’m thankful to be back. (International Roofing Expo 2021)

We could list dozens more comments we’ve documented detailing the enthusiasm about meeting in person and the selling opportunities that result. In fact, what we have learned from our post-show analytics is that even if attendance is lower than pre-COVID levels, lead numbers are not that far off, and the quality equals or surpasses those from prior years. 

4. Attendees and Exhibitors Are Following the Safety Rules (for the Most Part)

In case you think attendees represented by construction folks are throwing COVID caution to the wind, that hasn’t been our experience. The enthusiasm to meet in-person has been so strong, that masks and temperature checks haven’t kept people away. Using World of Concrete 2022 and the recently-concluded AHR Expo as examples – mask mandates were in place, and we didn’t see many people without them.

Many of the nation’s governors have loosened the mask mandates. It will be interesting to see if the trade show industry follows suit.

5. We Like Big Booths, and We Cannot Lie

Big booths are back. It wasn’t long ago that marketing managers were either downsizing their exhibit footprints or contemplating it. Exhibitors at the trade shows we’ve been attending haven’t gotten the memo. Especially with large, well-known brands, we’ve seen the resurgence of huge booths, beautifully designed, decked out with enormous LED video walls, conversation and lounge areas, and even cafes. In these grand exhibits, every wall is maximized with colorful and impactful branding. If you’re willing to spend the time, money and creative juice, a big booth can help you develop a remarkable attendee experience and make a splash in the exhibit hall.

6. Connect, Attract, and Excite!

When trade shows resumed two years ago many of our trade show clients and other exhibitors we spoke with were hesitant to attract a lot of people into their booths. Gone were the large presentations and the audiences that watched them. Instead, smaller well-spaced demos were the rule of thumb, or individual game kiosks. Recently, we’ve seen the sizzle and fun return to many booths.

Here are just some engagement activities and trends we’ve seen or created for our clients designed to delight and surprise:

  1. Gamification, such as contests that include a leader board or point scoring can be a great engagement tactic. But make sure your game is on brand and instills knowledge as well as fun.
  2. Big, splashy product launches create a buzz on the show floor, huge crowds, and interest and excitement for the scheduled event. The idea is to create momentum for the big reveal with pre-show publicity (email, social media and landing pages), and at-show buildup.
  3. Cause marketing is very popular because people love to experience the power of giving. At the RSNA show this year, we collaborated with our life sciences client to create a Charity Wall benefiting the Susan G. Koman Foundation. Visitors were encouraged to scan a QR code that revealed a randomly generated amount of money donated to the cause.
  4. Combining digital with the physical. Many booths we’ve seen have incorporated a well-thought-out strategy of optimizing the digital experience in the physical space. For example, QR codes were available in many areas of some of the booths we visited, that when scanned, took the visitor to an interactive microsite, product information page, or a form for scheduling a meeting.
  5. Presentation theaters are making an appearance again, complete with professional presenters and brand ambassadors.

Marketing managers are only limited by their imaginations in creating an exhibit that connects and excites and offers an immersive trade show experience.

As an aside, and staying on trend, the AHR Expo featured two large, live Podcast Pavilions where the latest products were discussed, delivered by well-known industry experts.

Conclusion: All the Feels

Enthusiasm and energy and happiness and inspiration! Will we ever again take for granted the humanity of being together and doing business in person, and cherishing products up close and personal? Will trade shows become commonplace again, and just part of doing business? We hope so!

C.C. Carr, TPG Contributing Writer

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