Trade shows – a relic or an essential component of a marketing campaign?

My last blog post was about the role of printed material in the “internet age”. Another area that I’m heavily involved in is the managing of trade shows and I started thinking along the same lines – does the traditional trade show still have a place in this modern world?

Typical trade show

The biggest show I’m involved with is Pittcon (or the Pittsburgh Conference of Analytical Chemistry!). My first Pittcon was 1998 and total attendance was approx 28,000. This was slightly down from the biggest year ever which maxed out at about 34,000 attendees in 1996. Attendance at the 2010 was an all time low at 16,800 – that’s more than 10,000 people who have just stopped going. The number of exhibitors is down too – not by the same percentage but still significantly (1200 in 1998, 960 in 2010).

The average cost of exhibiting at trade shows is a tricky number to pin down, but I found a 1999 article that talked about the costs averaging out at between $99-156/sq. ft. of booth space and I can only imagine its more than that now. So for a 10 x 10 booth the small business owner is likely looking at least $10,000, maybe $15,000 or more.

Surely the combination of diminishing numbers and increasing (or at least not decreasing) costs means that trade shows are D.E.A.D, dead!

Not so fast!

I manage and organize trade shows for two different clients and both are still actively looking for trade shows to attend and are probably going to do more / spend more in 2010/11 than in 2009/10. Why? – Because for them trade shows work (they are both engineering companies with new products to show off). They get exposure for themselves and their products and, more importantly, they get to meet new prospects. Perversely, the lower numbers of exhibitors may actually work in their favor – with less to see the attendees actually have more time to spend on the booths that are there!

I do feel that the days of the Mega-sized, all encompassing trade shows are probably behind us (“Pittcon are you listening?”), with the emphasis trending towards smaller, more-focused shows that have strong technical programs. Online trade shows may have their place (I’m personally not so sure) and, obviously, people will continue to do more of their everyday browsing via the internet, but for a potential client who wants to touch and feel and smell the instrument or piece of equipment they hope to buy visiting a “real” trade show is still the preferred method.

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