The trade show industry struggled over the past year as COVID-19 restricted travel and in-person attendance. Now, as vaccines roll out in force and restrictions loosen, the prospect of in-person trade shows seems viable once again. Still, the path forward may not be clear.

Even as the pandemic fades, concerns over event safety will likely linger for some time. Similarly, some would-be attendees may now prefer virtual trade show experiences after becoming accustomed to them. These trends pose a challenge to trade show organizers, but you can work around them.

Here are five ways you can encourage more in-person attendance for post-COVID trade shows.

Ensure Visitor Safety

Perhaps the most crucial step in organizing an in-person trade show post-COVID is ensuring health and safety. A recent poll revealed that 60% of trade show attendees say it’s too early to decide when they’d feel comfortable attending in-person again. With so many people concerned about their health, ensuring safe events is crucial.

Keeping stalls and exhibits at least six feet apart is an easy, straightforward way to promote event safety. Similarly, requiring temperature checks before entering may help assuage some visitors’ lingering concerns. Extra steps like requiring unvaccinated guests to continue wearing masks can provide another layer of protection and comfort.

You may want to work with nearby hotels and airports to create a “bubble” system for international travelers. Depending on the time and location of your event, this may even be necessary under government regulations. Steps that aren’t legally required are still valuable, though, as they can help guests feel safe.

Promote Interactive Experiences

Aside from safety, one of the most significant barriers to in-person attendance is the convenience of virtual events. Some attendees, now used to online trade shows, may feel there’s little need to attend in-person anymore. The key to attracting these visitors is zeroing in on what virtual trade shows can’t offer: hands-on interaction.

More than 80% of trade show attendees have buying authority at their company, and virtual experiences aren’t ideal for trying new products. If your show floor features plenty of hands-on exhibits where guests can test products and services themselves, it presents an enticing opportunity.

Companies that haven’t been able to try potential investments before buying them will appreciate the interaction. Promoting these hands-on experiences as part of the in-person trade show will draw people away from their virtual comfort zones.

Emphasize Event Location and Experience

After more than a year remaining mostly in one place, many professionals are likely eager to travel again. One survey found that 72% of American Consumers plan to travel in 2021, and 28% of workers plan to travel now that they work remotely. You can capitalize on these trends by emphasizing the leisure aspects of your event.

An exciting location or unique travel experience will help entice attendees who may be on the fence. Even if an in-person trade show doesn’t excite them, the prospect of a mini-vacation might. Promoting the tourism aspects of your location, like nearby restaurants, landmarks, and activities, will help attract these visitors.

To help in this area, you may consider partnering with nearby hotels or tourist attractions. Hosting post-show events like tours or culinary experiences will further emphasize the show’s potential for fun, not just business.

Offer Giveaways and Gifts

Similarly, you can further encourage in-person attendance by running giveaways or offering complimentary gifts. Depending on how far removed from the pandemic your event is, this may have to look different from the giveaways of the past. You can use that to your advantage, though, by rethinking gifts to offer a unique experience.

Instead of handing off gifts, you could offer them in packages to mail to attendees. This alternative both minimizes health risks from shared surfaces and creates opportunities for a more enticing experience. Guests could customize what they want in their gift packages instead of everyone receiving the same thing.

Customizable gift packages are more enticing than a standard offering, helping encourage more in-person attendance. Sending them as a thank-you for attending after the event will also build loyalty for future conferences.

When Going Hybrid, Diversify Offerings

Events happening right on the heels of the pandemic may want to opt for a hybrid approach. Offering both an in-person trade show and a virtual experience can help maximize overall attendance, but you should take care in doing so. You can make sure your virtual attendance doesn’t cannibalize in-person visits by separating what each experience offers.

If you communicate distinct value propositions for each part of the hybrid experience, you can avoid an entirely online event. Attendees have to know they’ll get something unique and enticing by going in person. Otherwise, they’ll likely prefer attending online out of convenience or lingering health concerns.

To maximize in-person attendance, favor your unique in-person experiences in your promotional materials. Promote what sets the in-person show apart and emphasize its exclusive offerings. Some guests may want to attend online but will attend the in-person alternative anyway if it has more to offer.

These Steps Will Revitalize In-Person Trade Shows

It will probably take a long time, even a few years, for trade shows to reach their pre-pandemic levels. If you’re organizing an event in the near future or plan to when COVID-19 levels drop further, you must account for this challenge. These steps can help you mitigate lingering concerns to promote in-person attendance.

While in-person trade shows suffered amid the pandemic, they won’t go away entirely. If event organizers work to minimize risks while creating new and exciting experiences, in-person attendance can recover faster.

With its Customer Care Campaign (CCC), Messe Frankfurt put its sales network to work with the explicit purpose of gathering information on the pandemic’s impact straight from the source and learning about key details in different countries and regions to assist Messe Frankfurt’s planning.

Companies expressed clear approval of the additional digital benefits offered by hybrid trade fair formats during the pandemic in particular. However: people want – and need – in-person trade fairs. Wolfgang Marzin, President and Chief Executive Officer of Messe Frankfurt, shared his interpretation of the findings: “This is a clear vote of confidence for in-person events. Only 3 percent of respondents wanted to see events move entirely online. In fact, 67 percent of our customers would like events to take place solely in person, with another 30 percent expressing a preference for hybrid formats. In total, 97 percent of our customers remain convinced that in-person events are an essential component of trade fairs.”

Marzin added that: “We first conducted this survey back in 2020, and not only were our customers eager to share their views, but there was also a sharp rise in confidence been the first and second surveys. Many of our customers saw their financial situations improve markedly during this time. There has also been an increasing readiness to take part in trade fairs nationally and internationally, both today and in future. Both of these factors have made us very optimistic here at Messe Frankfurt. Our customers are still here.”

The response rate was also impressive

59,000 companies took part in this survey. They were asked not only to answer the questions posed by our sales partners, but as part of the second survey this spring they were also called on to participate in a more in-depth market research survey. Mirko Schubert, Vice President International Sales Management at Messe Frankfurt: “The fact that more than 70 percent of customers surveyed provided us with qualified feedback is a sensational result that breaks all of our records.”

With their latest campaign, our sales partner network demonstrated yet again their extraordinarily close ties with our customers. Analysis of the results has given Messe Frankfurt valuable first-hand knowledge that will benefit our trade fair concepts and planning. Both Messe Frankfurt and its sales partners see further reasons for optimism in the findings, because very few of our customers have left the market during the pandemic. And our customers are ready for in-person trade fairs to return.

Background information on Messe Frankfurt

The Messe Frankfurt Group is the world’s largest trade fair, congress and event organiser with its own exhibition grounds. The Group employs approximately 2,450 people at its headquarters in Frankfurt am Main and in 29 subsidiaries around the world. The company generated annual sales of approximately €257 million in 2020 after having recorded sales of €736 million the previous year. Even in difficult times caused by the coronavirus pandemic, we are globally networked with our industry sectors. We have close ties with our industry sectors and serve our customers’ business interests efficiently within the framework of our Fairs & Events, Locations and Services business fields. One of the Group’s key USPs is its closely knit global sales network, which extends throughout the world. Our comprehensive range of services – both onsite and online – ensures that customers worldwide enjoy consistently high quality and flexibility when planning, organising and running their events. We are expanding our digital expertise with new business models. The wide range of services includes renting exhibition grounds, trade fair construction and marketing, personnel and food services. Headquartered in Frankfurt am Main, the company is owned by the City of Frankfurt (60 percent) and the State of Hesse (40 percent).

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