WARNING: “The trade show industry is not innovative” is a blanket statement. Yes, there are pockets of new ideas. Yes, there are individual shows and organizers who are trying new things and taking risks. But, for the most part, as an industry, we have been doing the same thing, the same way for the past 50 years.
I realize that the term “innovative” is overused. In many ways it should be banned from the vernacular (or at least all press releases). However, that doesn’t excuse an entire industry which is clinging to the same business model, infrastructure, programming, floor plan design, metrics, and look (pipe and drape) for half a century. And here it is important to note: Getting a mobile app for your show is not innovation.
Here are some other tell tale signs that this industry, our industry, the industry we make a living in, is lagging behind on the innovation curve:
- The love/hate relationship we have with virtual/live hybrid events that represent the first breath of fresh air we have had in a decade for growing an audience, building on killer content, and saving a buck
- The fact that we just can’t seem to crack the code for bringing down the costs to exhibit
- The knowledge that we depend on a monolithic infrastructure of organizations, buildings, and business practices when the rest of the world is nimble, on-demand, customized, peer-to-peer, DIY, community-based, intimate, and virtual
- The news that large industry suppliers continue to expand their offerings beyond trade shows, buying up competitors, and re-branding themselves rather than living within the self-imposed limitations of the “trade show” industry
- The fact that some of the best innovation is NOT coming from the industry. It is coming from citizen innovators filling a void
- The mounting evidence that innovation in content marketing, social media, and digital marketing is eating away at the corporate budgets previously reserved for trade shows
- The realization that there has been virtually no increase in the number of shows in the U.S. in a decade
Why should we innovate?
The expectations from our stakeholders have changed. Attendees want trade shows that are transformative—personally and professionally. Exhibitors want clear evidence that trade shows are superior to other marketing mediums (not just that they have can achieve ROI from trade shows in general). Sponsors want an immediate, measurable rush of attention/leads/interest from attendees. To deliver these results we can no longer have attendees lumbering through the aisles, exhibitors unable to afford or understand how to effectively exhibit, and sponsorship opportunities that don’t keep pace with the real world. Being unable to innovate in AT LEAST these three areas makes our industry vulnerable. As the next generation comes in and the current one moves out, the current situation will only worsen.
Why don’t we innovate?
It all begs the question “why?” If we accept that the trade show value proposition is still valid, why are we flat lining? As an industry, do we not value innovation? Is the investment in infrastructure so large that we can’t innovate? Are we so overwhelmed by 9/11 and the Recession that we are afraid to risk? Do our customers and members have too little appetite for innovation? Are we married to the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” ideology? Are we earning too much to care about innovating? Do we think we’re innovative when, by the rest of the business world’s standards, we really aren’t? Are we afraid that true innovation will reveal structural deficiencies that we would be unable to overcome? Are we still using the publishing industry as a template (should I mention where newspapers and some print publications are now?)… Are we analog, when we should be digital?
Although there are those that argue for the need to ”innovate or die,” I’m not convinced of the advantages of innovation for innovation’s sake. However, I do know that companies and industries that are characteristically innovative also happen to be earnings leaders and job creators—think Apple computers.
The Takeaway: Innovation does not necessarily mean technology adoption. All the apps in the world will not save an industry whose value proposition is muddy. Innovation requires a concerted, transparent, industry-wide effort to examine the current business models, consider the competition (other marketing mediums), differentiate, address the structural weaknesses that keep the industry from growing, think out loud, experiment with new business and pricing models, deploy new technologies, and be open to change. It is in our collective interests to tackle these problems together. What are we waiting for?