Last week our office discussion was ‘what do we miss most about exhibitions?’ This week is a bit more serious ‘the true value of face to face exhibitions vs virtual exhibitions‘ – how many deals has your business closed in the past 12 months of virtual exhibition stands?

Trade shows are one of the toughest events to virtualize. They’re designed to heighten the in-person experience. All of the sensory attractions, the engaged escapism and even the impromptu transitional interactions as people walk from booth to booth, or to lunch, these are part of the fabric of a trade show. Without unique and innovative activations from exhibitors there is the danger of adding very little value beyond everyday online research, and online demonstrations.

In order for virtual exhibitions to find success, we believe the three core components that will need to be developed and “answered” are:

  1. Casual Learning and Discovery – not the learning from formal presentations and demonstrations, but the chance discoveries and serendipitous encounters, where attendees might happen to find a new supplier next to the booth they were originally planning to visit.
  2. Lead Generation – usually the tangible benefits of offering samples, or branded promotional items are a key part of obtaining lead details. How can a similar benefit, or an even greater benefit be offered virtually?
  3. Closing Deals – for many products, customers may still find it essential to physically try, or see a product before they will agree to a sale. Even if virtual demonstrations could be sufficient, is the virtual platform being offered by a show organiser sufficient for your demonstration needs?

Over a decade ago Cornell university released a study with Hospitality Industry Perspectives on Face-to-Face gatherings vs. Virtual interactions:

Face-to-face is most likely to be the best approach in the following three business situations:
(1) To capture attention, particularly when you want to initiate something new or different;
(2) To inspire a positive emotional climate, as a way to catalyze collaboration, innovation, and
performance; and
(3) To build human networks and relationships, realizing that information can increasingly be
shared virtually whereas the greater value is in people networks and relationships.

In summary, large-group face-to-face meetings and events are the best option when a business or organization needs to capture attention necessary for a new or different strategy, relationship, or product. They are the best option for inspiring people and building a positive emotional climate that influences decision-making and performance at every level. They are the best option for building the strong
relationships and community that form powerful, informal levers for success in our post-recession business world. Finally, face-to-face is the only option for celebration and recognition rituals that enliven the human spirit and shape the cultural norms of the organization.