With the exhibition and events industry having been largely shut down since last March, exhibition organisers have adapted to the new normal by rolling out digital events and products for their attendees and exhibitors. This approach has been successful in certain sectors for some organisers, but it’s clear there’s no replacement for in-person exhibitions. 

“People’s lives have changed,” said Laura McCartney, Head of Exhibitor Experience, EMEA, Informa Markets, organiser of  500 events in 14 specialist markets around the globe. 

“We’ve had to transition to virtual events and marketplaces to keep our communities connected. Whilst we have seen greater reach and meaningful connections, there was feedback that they just missed being on site. They miss being on the show floor. There are opportunities for digital, but what we can all see is that the value of the tactile experience of trade events and the value of in-person connections are irreplaceable.”

During a webinar on 21 January presented by UFI, the Global Association for the Exhibition Industry, McCartney discussed how the pandemic has changed the customer value of exhibitions, along with Liz Irving, EVP, Head of Marketing, Technology and Customer Experience, Clarion Events North America, the US division of Clarion Events UK (pictured above). Her division produces 50 events across 12 sectors. (watch the full UFI webinar here:

the value of the tactile experience of trade events and the value of in-person connections are irreplaceable…

Since the pandemic, Informa and Clarion combined have launched hundreds of digital events as they wait for governments around the globe to allow for business-to-business events to restart. “The pace and rate of the COVID-19 impact on physical events through 2020 created a demand to shift to virtual events at volume,” according to Informa’s 2020 year-end earning statement. “This saw more than 500 virtual events of different shapes and sizes run through the year. This real-time digital experience has significantly accelerated our digital product development, and we will further develop and enhance this capability in 2021.”

It’s all about adapting to customer demand. “We’ve spent a lot of time with markets talking about their needs,” Irving said. “What we found is there’s a strong need for connections. We are proving that connections can happen digitally. We found a way to take markets forward to address their needs today and connect in new ways digitally. We’ve launched content series, episodic content series, membership platforms, showrooms with live demos, and invested in hosted buyer programmes and technology with the acquisition of Quartz Events.”

According to Informa research, “40% of visitors and 55% of exhibitors reported a huge impact on their business from the pandemic, but they were glad when events were canceled during the pandemic,” McCartney said. “What we realised: what our customers need from us is more — more support and engagement throughout every touch point in this new normal.”

In response, the new normal for exhibition organisers going forward will likely include a mix of digital and in-person. “When I look at Clarion North America as a whole as we go into 2021 and beyond, our product mix of what we offer will be live, it will be digital, and it will be meetings,” said Irving. “Our teams have much more in their toolkit to be able to sell in a consultative way to deliver valuable connections.”

Show organisers predict digital solutions will enhance the in real life (IRL) experience.  “It’s opening us up to think about how digital can augment experiences, but it doesn’t have to be the same way we’ve always positioned ourselves,” Irving said. In the digital space, some of the best lead-gen comes from content series and live demos, she said. 

“You’re not selling an exhibition booth space anymore, you’re essentially selling a marketing solution,” McCartney said. “It’s going to start to evolve, but there are different strategies across different markets. It’s about tapping into what’s the best for what customer type.”

Digital content won’t compete with a physical event once in-person returns, Irving said. “It’s completely back to basics and tapping into content that we’ve seen physically in our conferences to say what are the leading topics here and how can we integrate that into a virtual environment.” Clarion hopes pre-show virtual participation will stimulate some of its key clients to get the leads they need during the physical event dates. 

“Digital is definitely here to stay,” McCartney said, adding that digital and in-person will have to work in conjunction with each other moving forward. “We really have to take that and look at how we educate our customers moving forward to show them the value that both of these products have side-by-side.”

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