When will B2B trade shows and in-person events return?

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For B2B marketers who depend at least partially on leads from conferences and trade shows, these are bleak times. You can’t look up without hearing about coronavirus and COVID-19 and the human tragedy in its wake–as well as the economic carnage across industries. And no one is talking about bringing back in-person gatherings anytime soon.

If you’ve been staring down the number of leads you drove from last year’s shows, asking yourself when trade shows come back, I am afraid that I have very bad news for you. I think that in the best case scenario, that date is in 2022.

I know that no one really wants to think that it will be that bad. I am a professional speaker and I don’t want to think that. Marketing expert and professional speaker Mark Schaefer recently published interesting data showing many people are much more optimistic than me, expecting small events to resume late this year and large events in the first half of 2021. But Mark’s conclusion mirrors mine, that the facts get in the way of such rosy scenarios.

Why do I say this? There are a litany of reasons:

  1. Single-company events are being moved online through 2021 already. If your company depends on a large company that controls an ecosystem, it doesn’t look good. Those big company conferences are just a discretionary use of marketing funds that brings the big company publicity and makes customers happy and possibly more loyal. No in-person event is worth the risk when they can easily run an online event that brings them publicity. If you are one of the big company’s ecosystem vendors, a plug-in to a large company (such as Salesforce, Google, Facebook, Oracle, IBM, Amazon, Microsoft, or Apple, in the tech business), don’t expect any in-person events through 2021. They can spend their marketing money better elsewhere, or just put the money back in their pockets to cope with the economic downturn. They don’t care about your booth.
  2. Events companies aren’t scheduling any in-person events yet. They’ve moved near-in events online, and have stayed mum about ones further out. They desperately want to hold these events in person. Unlike the big companies above, these events are their lifeblood. They desperately care about your booth, but they can’t afford the risk of spending gobs of cash for no certain return. They’ve been forced to move events online even though that dramatically reduces their income. They are trying to hang on financially hoping the in-person events business comes back. The problem is that they need months of lead time before they can run, and they can’t risk setting a date and spending money until they know the event will work. So, events companies want to do the in-person events, but the factors below make 2022 a more likely time for that to happen.
  3. Governments have to allow the events to happen. In all of the re-opening fervor, large gatherings of people have not been addressed. We’re still grappling with restaurants, stores, and haircuts. Even if the optimists on reopening are right, and we can safely and gradually reopen with no second wave of infection, no one knows how to do large gatherings. Professional sports are discussing becoming TV-studio events, with no fans in the stands. Broadway theatre is closed with no plans to reopen. Movie theatres are shuttered, with studios contemplating a new distribution channel based on streaming. Industries with more at stake than our trade shows are moving to a near-term new normal that does not involve butts in seats. Government will allow these types of events last of all. It’s likely that we’ll need a vaccine, herd immunity, or inexpensive simple treatment to persuade governments this is safe. None of those things seem likely to happen anytime soon.
  4. People must be willing to come. This is the true wildcard. Travel industry expert Tim Peter notes that trade show attendees must have the money and lack fear. The economic outlook ensures that many companies will be cutting budgets, with travel one of the first things to go. Moreover, people are unlikely to be willing to get on planes, stay in hotels, and mingle with big crowds even when governments signal the “all clear.” Early polling suggests that one-half to two-thirds of people are too afraid to eat in a sit-down restaurant. How much more fear will surround long-distance travel and large gatherings? Because these trips are scheduled months in advance, you need to wait for people to have the money, be unafraid, and make plans months in advance. Until event companies think the world has changed, they won’t be planning big events.

Small events might come back faster. An event that draws from a local area that can be reached by car and is short enough to require no hotel stay might come back faster. These in-person events are usually much smaller (under 100 people), and can be planned more quickly with shorter lead time for attendee planning. But they aren’t great for your booth.
The shows that housed your booth are not coming back anytime soon:

  • Think about how long it will be before governments allow trade shows.
  • Then think about how long before people are willing to come back.
  • Then think about how far ahead trade shows need to be planned.
  • No one will plan a trade show until they think people will come.

What’s more, no one will plan a trade show until they think you will buy your booth. Would you be willing to buy a booth in this kind of uncertainty? Your budgets are down, too. And you are probably still licking your wounds from the trade shows you paid for that haven’t run or that ran online. 
It’s hard to imagine that trade shows resume before 2022.

If you’ve been hoping for a different reality, you probably need to start now in pivoting to digital. Those leads have to come from somewhere. Ask yourself:

  • Is traffic to my website up? If not, it could be because your industry has been cratered, but if your industry is at least limping along, your traffic should be up. If your traffic is not showing upticks, you might not have the content you need to attract searchers. Maybe focus on content marketing and SEO. Maybe work on your email campaigns.
  • Are your web-driven leads up? If you are seeing those website traffic increases, are you driving a commensurate increase in leads? If not, your customer experience might be to blame. Does your site search find what your customers are looking for? Do your web pages recommend related content and related products? That’s the customer experience that Amazon provides, and what your customers expect, so if you aren’t delivering, they are looking for a competitor who can.

It’s distressing that our best laid plans for trade shows, conferences, and other in-person events have come apart. But instead of moping around asking “Who moved my cheese?” it’s time to jump into action and redirect your marketing dollars to digital. Every minute you wait gives your competitors the chance to move first, and gives your finance people a chance to zero out the trade show budget before ou can redirect it.

You’ve paid lip service to improving your digital marketing for years, and maybe you’ve taken some baby steps in that direction, but you’ve never made the transformative move. This is the moment. The old ways are not coming back any time soon, so the faster you pivot to the new reality, the faster your leads come back.

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