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The Future of Hybrid Events and Trade Shows

Corbin Ball is an event technology speaker, consultant, and writer who helps event and exhibition hosts worldwide effectively use technology to increase efficiency and improve the attendee experience.


Corbin Ball

Event Technology Speaker, Consultant, and Writer

Why are trade shows important?

For more than a century, trade shows have brought buyers and sellers together in a concentrated, face-to-face (F2F) manner that educates, strengthens human interaction, and generates significant business activity. 

Did event organizers and leaders discover any advantages or benefits to hosting trade shows virtually as opposed to live and in-person? 

A major advantage virtual trade shows have is very precise analytics. Every click is trackable, leading to rich detail in the attendee journey: how long they were there, what they looked at, what was downloaded, polling responses, etc. In addition, virtual events can provide larger, more diverse, and more international audiences

The major disadvantage, leading to consistently low NPR scores by exhibitors, is the poor generation of qualified leads. Virtual does not replace the F2F exhibit booth experience effectively.

How have trade show organizers adapted to the challenges of hosting virtually? What solutions have been implemented to address the challenges, and what challenges still need to be addressed?

Simply trying to copy the F2F booth format in a virtual world does not work well. Exhibitors and show managers have worked to increase visibility by other methods: more sponsorship opportunities, demonstration showcases, virtual exhibit tours, introductory sponsorship videos to presentations, and hosted appointment scheduling, just to name a few.  More engagement opportunities are becoming available, including immersive, 3D-like environments (Allseated’s exVo and others). 

There has been a huge amount of virtual/hybrid meeting investment and tech innovation during the pandemic, and more developments and best practices are to come.

What elements of virtual trade shows are worth preserving moving forward? How can this be achieved? 

Society in general has been pushed forward a decade during the pandemic in terms of digitization (video conferencing, telemedicine, distance learning, online ordering of groceries, takeout, etc.). 

A major benefit of digital trade shows is the potential for excellent data analytics of attendee behavior in order to better record and serve their needs. Data analytics needs to be fully embraced as F2F events reemerge. Every event tech company needs to fully embrace application programming interfaces (APIs) and figure out ways that the mountains of potential data captured at F2F events can be organized in the most useful manner. Continued advances in artificial intelligence, mobile technology, visualization dashboards, and sales automation tools will assist with this. 

As we move beyond the pandemic, and as live, in-person events become safer to attend, do you anticipate trade shows returning to their pre-pandemic structure?

The pandemic has afforded us the opportunity to stop and reassess what events and exhibitions should be like. It is time to throw out the old rulebook and envision a better, more attendee-centric path. In terms of trade shows, I highly recommend Francis Friedman’s free e-book, “The Modern Digital Tradeshow.” Although written just before the pandemic, it is very prescient regarding the direction trade shows need to go. 

Content delivery will also change. The didactic, 90-minute lecture full of PowerPoint slides will be less common. Shorter, more targeted topics with lots of participant interaction will become the norm.

In short, events and exhibitions need to become more attendee-centric: more digitized, customized, and smarter. They won’t be about net square footage of exhibit space sold or attendee headcount. It will be about the attendee experience and measurements on adult learning.

What is most likely for the future of events: remaining virtual, returning to an in-person setting, or becoming a hybrid of the two? What might a hybrid virtual/live trade show look like?

I believe virtual events will have a significantly larger slice of the event pie when the pandemic is over.  There has been a huge amount of funding in this space, as well as a huge amount of innovation and best practices that are being refined daily. 

However, we are a gregarious species — we like to get together! When the pandemic passes, F2F will come back. This will be highly dependent on COVID transmission rates with large, international trade shows recovering last. Lower attendance will likely be the norm for the next few years.  

Hybrid events will be a bridge for the transition for many groups, and will remain a regular mainstay for some groups as well. However, event organizers are realizing that the increased cost and complexity of a hybrid event (sometimes double that of an F2F event) will limit the widespread adoption. Planning an event for two entirely different audiences is a challenge, but best practices and event tech innovation will make this more viable.  

What equipment or resources have you found to be necessary for the success of virtual or hybrid trade show organizers? 

Fortunately, the event and exhibition industries are very well connected. The professional associations, such as MPI, PCMA, and ICCA, just to name a few of the many, can be of great assistance through networking and education opportunities. There are also many related publications, blogs, newsletters, free webcasts, and more to assist with virtual, hybrid, and F2F strategies.  

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