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  • The Age of the Expo?
Apr 2010
Apr. 26, 2010 — Boston Convention & Exposition Center
Thursday Afternoon

Any number of thoughts might flit through my head as I wander the floor of a trade show. ‘Could I pull off a bowtie?’ ‘Why do my feet look smaller in these shoes?’ One question in particular, though, has plagued me these past couple of days. And that is, ‘Might these be the sunset years of the large-scale industry expo?’

Don’t get me wrong: Attendance is brisk here at BIOMEDevice Boston, and vendors have been reporting quality traffic. The question wouldn’t even have occurred to me were it not for a conversation I had yesterday afternoon. I was chatting with a gentleman the bulk of whose display hadn’t yet arrived at the show (he didn’t say why; let’s just blame it on volcanic ash). Even with this unfortunate turn of events, he told me, he’d had a number of good leads that morning – especially compared with some of the expos he’d been to in the past year or year and a half. “I’d pretty much decided,” he said, harking back to the darkest days of the Great Recession, “that trade shows were a thing of the past.”

Conditions have greatly improved, of course, as evidenced by attendance here this week. But still, I had to wonder…What if?

Trade shows first appeared in the late Medieval period, when farmers and craftsmen would travel from town to town for trading fairs, showcasing and selling their products. Half a millennia later, the shows have evolved into events of staggering proportions. A single expo can occupy a space best measured in football fields, host hundreds if not thousands of vendors, and somehow contain many times more attendees.

Several factors now threaten the status quo, however. First and foremost, perhaps, are the considerable and far-ranging costs of trade shows. For vendors, these include booth rentals, development of displays, travel and accommodations, printing of promotional materials to hand out to attendees, and more.

Just as significant is the emergence and ascendance of Life and Work 2.0, which have made it possible to conduct many aspects of business online.

My new friend and I discussed this apparent sea change, and lamented the passing of the primarily corporeal world of our childhoods. Still, we comforted ourselves with the thought that, no matter how convenient and expeditious the internet might be, there’s really no substitute for face-to-face interaction. No matter how lightning quick business may become, people will always fall back on personal relationships – relationships developed at trade shows and other, similar venues.

But the nature of ‘personal relationships’ is changing. Sure, folks of a certain age (i.e., me, possibly others) might always feel more comfortable with face-to-face interaction. That isn’t the case with everyone, though. You may have heard – if you’ve opened a magazine or turned on a TV anytime in the past several years – kids today live in an electronic world. For them, interacting through Twitter, texts, etc. is as natural as breathing (during an executive panel discussion yesterday, one of the speakers noted that his 15-year-old daughter had somehow sent 30,000 text messages in the previous month). And it won’t be long before they constitute a significant part of the workforce.

So what will happen with trade shows? Will they disappear entirely? Possibly. It seems more likely, though, that event organizers will continue to adapt to the changing landscape – for example, developing greater numbers of virtual trade shows, or combinations of these and smaller, more targeted physical shows. Business will always need people, and we will always find ways to bring them together. And that, I suppose, is comforting.

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