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Johnny Shell

The Return of Print Industry Trade Shows

Is this a promising future or dark reality?

Jun 29, 2022 12:22:28 PM


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Trade shows have long been a source of new business…a way to generate leads, fill the sales pipeline, and to display the latest and greatest (insert invention, software, or manufactured product here). Among the traditional exhibitors in the printing industry, there are probably very few who don’t have a love/hate relationship with trade shows:

  • Pros: The sales opportunities, networking, seeing industry colleagues and meeting new ones, staying on top of industry trends/technology developments
  • Cons: The equipment shipping costs (not to mention the damages caused by freight companies and forklift drivers), the time commitment, the horrendous travel, booth and utility costs, Vegas with 110°F heat and no Blue Man Group!


During the pandemic, the trade show industry saw a huge downturn given the close contact requirements that come with attending trade shows running contrary to public health guidelines. A study by UFI (The Global Association of the Exhibition Industry) indicated that, during 2020, the global exhibition industry contracted by 68%—equaling an estimated $330 billion in sales that was missed by exhibitors. With the cancellation of many trade shows during the pandemic, event organizers quickly pivoted to virtual events to allow vendors to showcase their products or services as well as interact with attendees online. OEMs took their own action and held virtual tours, webinars, and podcasts to fill the void—taking advantage of any online opportunity to get in front of potential customers.


How the Pause In Trade Shows Affected Businesses

With a history that goes back centuries, the pause to trade shows during the pandemic was unprecedented. I’ve been fortunate to attend Impressions Expo (Long Beach, CA) and FESPA Global Print Expo (Berlin, Germany) in 2022. Many exhibitors I spoke with said they saw a reduction in new business, had difficulty establishing relationships with potential customers, and had difficulty keeping up with printing industry trends during the pandemic and they were thrilled to finally get back to a sense of normal business by exhibiting in a trade show. It seems the desire for in-person, face-to-face contact is irreplaceable.


When asked if the disruption of the pandemic had caused them to change their trade show strategy compared to pre-pandemic, the majority said they planned to exhibit in more trade shows compared to pre-COVID. While many acknowledged that they rely more on online channels for marketing, they also believe trade shows still have value. We ran a simple poll recently asking, “As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, is exhibiting in trade shows still a viable option for your business?” The results clearly show that most respondents believe trade shows are a viable option for their business.



While no one really knows what the future of trade shows will look like, we do know they will be different in many ways. First, they will become more intentional and thoughtful with hyper-personalization, connectedness, better storytelling, integrated virtual/live formats, and sustainability. While attendees want to gather in-person, they will almost certainly need more incentives (e.g., quality presenters/exhibitors, focus on creating connections, networking experiences). Now more than ever, attendees care about how they spend their time and the value that will be gained after being away from their business. Finding the right mix of professional and personal experiences will be key.


Contactless mingling will also be the new norm for some time, so consider signs that explain products on display so attendees can take pictures of what they’re looking at or incorporate quick response (QR) codes that incorporate augmented reality. The use of QR codes continues to rise, providing exhibitors with an easy way to get information straight into their potential customer’s virtual hands. Instead of traditional pamphlets and brochures that require human touch to retrieve, content accessed via a QR code is being stored and referenced again by attendees. It would also be wise to use videos to illustrate workflow, product features and operation of equipment.


Keypoint Intelligence Opinion

As trade shows re-emerge, finding an ideal “fit” within this new landscape will require some form of experimentation across a range of dimensions. As always, empathy and creativity are essential factors, but trial and error will be what sets many exhibitors apart in the long run. While some have suggested that the effects of the pandemic may translate into a negative impact on in-person trade shows, it’s clear that they remain vitally important to marketing strategies having felt the loss of these benefits during the pandemic.


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