Virtual tradeshows: serious contenders or just a flash in the pan?

By Lawrence Chia

All indicators point to the fact that the exhibitions industry in Hong Kong will continue to grow in number over the next few years. According to the Hong Kong Exhibition and Convention Industry Association, the number of exhibitions in Hong Kong has increased approximately 20 percent since 2010. Total exhibition space available now exceeds 150,000 sq. m. and is still undergoing expansion.

Robust figures aside, though, the industry is changing and much of this change is being driven by technology.

Tradeshows have traditionally been a vital part of business activity since the late 1800s. Beginning as ‘trading fairs’, where producers travelled around towns in Europe and North America to showcase and sell their products; they quickly became a essential places for buyers and sellers to ‘meet and greet’ and for products to be seen, handled, and put through their paces.

But recently, trade shows have begun to transform. Around the world, the ongoing technological revolution is altering everything about the way we interact with each other, from our personal friends to our business colleagues to our potential customers. These changes in interaction have sparked fundamental changes in strategy for brands, and has led to a stampede in the direction of digital business.

Virtual tradeshows in the form of internet portals and Facebook sites are fast becoming an important component of business models for companies around the globe. At first glance, there are many upsides and no downsides: they provide access to potentially huge numbers of customers, they allow deeper engagement and ‘live’ interaction with audiences on multiple levels, and they do this at a fraction of the cost of a traditional tradeshow.

Hong Kong enterprises are increasingly becoming involved in virtual tradeshows - many major shows now have a virtual component where companies can set up ‘online booths’ and interact with potential contacts. This huge potential business has also resulted in increasing numbers of suppliers providing technology for virtual tradeshows.

But even with the latest and greatest technology, online product demonstrations still lack the all-important touch and feel element. They are also quite passive forums, usually providing only one-way presentations and there are no guarantees that audiences will become or remain engaged. Face-to-face meetings, product demonstrations and the handshake are still vital elements of conducting transactions - especially for multi-million dollar deals. Virtual tradeshows don’t offer this, and in some circles, the internet and online systems are still viewed as supporting rather than mainstream platforms.

At the end of the day, tradeshows have always offered a unique ‘one stop shop’ business opportunity for brands, large and small. While the traditional model of how tradeshows work is looking somewhat dated, their essential function is still relevant. The continued demand for exhibition space also speaks volumes.

Clearly, brands will need to strategize about how to optimize their use of tradeshows in this new digital world, but one constant has not changed and will not change: people still want to do business with people.

So, where do virtual tradeshows fit in in Hong Kong? At the moment, they are not affecting demand for exhibition space, nor are they presenting serious competition to existing shows. However, they are a valuable tool that may serve as a gateway to bring potential buyers and sellers together and entice or encourage them to meet face-to-face. One thing is certain: virtual tradeshows are here to stay.

All signs point towards a future populated by ‘hybrid’ tradeshows - physical tradeshows with a large and lively digital element. This will allow 24-hour, off-site customer engagement, while still maintaining the comfort, trust and reassurance that comes from interacting with real people in the real world.

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