Why do people attend trade shows? The key reasons are generally to keep up with developments in their industry, to find out about new products and services, to hear interesting speakers and to network and socialise with their peers. Arguably, though, it’s increasingly the last of these that’s the most critical.
Nowadays, there are plenty of online blogs, newsfeeds and social network accounts that keep people up to date with developments in even the most niche of industry sectors, all year round.
And while people might be interested in seeing the latest products and services demonstrated under a single roof, most people probably can’t justify a day or two out of the office just for that, except perhaps in fast-moving physical product sectors. Let’s face it, too often you get collared by some middle-ranking salesman who’ll give you 10 minutes of flannel then scan your badge so his company can bombard you with mailshots for evermore. If you’re lucky you might get given a stress ball at the end of it (by which point, you’ll probably need it).
Then there are the speakers. Of course, a really good speaker can be a significant draw. Sadly, too few trade shows these days have the time or resources to put together a wholly compelling programme. Mostly, they manage one or two decent speakers a day, padded out with a lot of tedious, Powerpoint-toting time-fillers. I’ve often wondered, incidentally, if this is a deliberate ploy to ensure people aren’t so engrossed with the conference sessions that they don’t spend any time browsing the (paying) exhibitors’ stands.
Teasing aside, I still enjoy many of the trade shows I attend. These days I’m mostly there as a visitor, but I’ve also done duty as an exhibitor, speaker and organiser, so I’ve seen events from pretty much every angle. And in whatever capacity I’m attending professionally, what makes me remember and enjoy an event – and want to attend again – is the quality of personal, social interactions I experience there. I might bump into an old colleague in the queue for a coffee, or find myself chatting to a really interesting exhibitor at an after-show party, or share war stories over a pint with an industry counterpart. Spookily, it’s nearly always these social encounters that lead to the most productive business relationships after the show.
And it is this social element of shows that really can’t yet be replicated online. While you can certainly form and maintain both personal and business relationships on the Internet, and build communities of interest, it will never be quite the same as meeting people in the flesh. As we said here, people will always want to attend real-world events.
If my calculation that “better social encounters = better event” is shared by most people, shouldn’t organisers be doing more to encourage such meetings at their shows? While a great chance encounter is always particularly rewarding, there have been occasions when I wished serendipity was more on my side. Ever had that ‘awkwardly scanning the room in a fruitless bid to find someone you vaguely know before purposefully staring at your smartphone so you don’t look like a Billy-no-mates’ experience? Those are the events I avoid going back to.
Of course, some keen, proactive networking types will scan their list of contacts prior to a show, think about who’s likely to be attending and then fire off email messages or tweets asking them if they’ll be there and whether they want to meet up for a coffee. Most of, us, though, don’t do this. (How does anyone find time for that sort of preparation anyway? Smug gits.)
If, however, when I registered for a show the organiser showed me some people I knew who were also attending, or people attending who sounded really interesting, I’d be (a) much more inclined to attend and (b) more likely to look out for and speak to those people at the show, or even contact them in advance to set something up. And if I did that, I’d be more likely to have a more enjoyable show than I might have done had I purely relied on bumping into people by chance.
Our social networking sites know about our interests and they know who we’re connected to. And if hitting a button to share that information temporarily with an event organiser’s website meant it could significantly improve my chances of having a socially successful event, I’d be sorely tempted (as long as they guaranteed that my data wouldn’t be stored or used for anything else, and I trusted their assurances).
Face-to-face might trump the Internet when it comes to forging ineffable human bonds, but technology wins hands down when it comes to finding and flagging up those potentially meaningful connections from a mass of data.
Like what you’ve read? Check out our exciting new Exhibition Social Registration software to see how your event can benefit from social connections.
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