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The ‘virtual trade show’ is too unimaginative to work

I’ve heard it said recently that after what’s happened in 2020, we could finally see the ‘virtual trade show’ become a success. Plenty of people have been trying to get this idea off the ground for the best part of twenty years. Now that we’ve all suddenly had to become more used to online presentations, has the time come for the virtual trade show?

I’m unconvinced. There are many physical things that can be replaced by online alternatives, and a lot which can be approximated, often not very well. Then there are the mashups that just don’t need to exist.

The whole point of a trade show is to meet people, get demonstrations and discuss issues. Its advantage of bringing together lots of suppliers in a single location is easy to replicate online. The rest isn’t. It’s all about the personal interaction: if a real-world trade show was a series of unmanned display boards, nobody would come. So a virtual trade show needs to not only provide a way of visiting a number of suppliers’ stands, but also talking to their people. The only way it can work is if each exhibitor has representatives available to chat on their online stand, for the whole duration of the exhibition. And even if that could be done, it would only work if visitors want to interact that way. I’d bet they don’t.

To me, the ‘virtual trade show’ is just an unimaginative attempt to take a proven physical product and put it online, without really considering why it works in the real world. Other examples include attempts to put magazines on the web in a ‘page turning’ format. Nobody wants that. What’s worked online have been new ways of doing things that leverage any advantages offered by the technology. Stick to those.