Just like every live event that was affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, the future of trade shows was thrown into question with the shutdown of the economy and essentially all in-person business. Zoom meetings replaced conference rooms and social media became a main point of contact between buyer and seller. The fashion industry, like every other industry, had to reimagine and reinvent itself to fit this new, entirely virtual landscape.
But even with the world slowly returning to what was once deemed “normal,” certain aspects of fashion and commerce might not look the same as before. Will trade shows once again be bustling with people from all over the world, trying to make connections and conduct business? How do we balance the risks with the rewards of large-scale events in our current economy and environment? The viability and relevancy of trade shows all comes down to finding the balance between respecting the roots of business and commerce, and the acceptance of the fact that the world doesn’t quite look the way it did before 2020.
In medieval Europe, trade shows allowed merchants to gather and exchange commodities at a time when trade was much more difficult than in it is today (it wasn’t like they could order clothes online or take a quick drive down to the grocery store). These trade shows also allowed for the exchange of knowledge and ideas, fostering innovation and creating demand for more business opportunities and similar gatherings.
As the world changed and improvements to transportation and communication were made, trade shows continued to be important business tools for both exhibitors and attendees. The opportunity to showcase products, connect with prospective customers, gather information on competitors and spot trends and other interesting merchandise was all possible within one giant event space. Over a few days, the possibilities of what you could do for your business were unpredictable, yet limitless. And every niche could be served within a specific industry: Miami Swim Week serves those interested and involved in the swimwear industry, and Outdoor Retailer is the biggest outdoor clothing trade show in North America. Basically, there’s an opportunity for everyone to showcase their products and talents among like-minded individuals.
Then you throw in a highly transmittable disease, and the in-person, collaborative atmosphere of trade shows is now in jeopardy. When it’s no longer safe to gather in large groups and be in close contact with strangers, everything about trade shows must be reexamined. Once it was considered unsafe to attend trade shows, or anything in-person for that matter, what other issues can arise after taking a step back and really looking at the success of the business model.
In an article published on New Perspective last August titled, “The Future of B2B Trade Shows: Do They Still Matter in 2022, or It’s Time for Hybrid Events?” the author states that the B2B trade show market that was only worth $5.6bn in 2020 was expected to rebound to $14.5bn by 2024. But trade shows rely on a few factors to be considered successful for all involved. The safety of everyone in attendance is one of the biggest concerns for hosting live events following the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. The vaccination and negative test rates of every individual is impossible to track and monitor, however, and that unpredictability could make or break a large-scale event.
Attendance is key because the costs that come with putting on and participating in these trade shows decides their value moving forward. It can be difficult for smaller businesses to budget for booth spaces, rising flight costs and other employee expenditures, especially after the fragile economic state Covid-19 left the world in. These costs need to be offset by the ROI, which is often hard to predict and measure with larger events that aren’t even sure what attendance will look like.
Traveling and spending time and money on a venture that isn’t even guaranteed to bring business or capital can bring the sustainability of trade shows into question as well. In the Fashion United article, “Are Fashion Trade Shows a Thing of the Past?” it’s pointed out that many customers and brands are concerning themselves more and more with their carbon footprint and their effect on our environment. Retailers and other small businesses that focus on the quality and individuality of their handmade goods might not consider a large, commercialized event as being “on-brand” for them. Wanting to be sustainable is both an environmental and economic decision that might not align with trade shows that require every retailer to take time, money and resources to participate.
Many of these issues didn’t arise because of the pandemic, but they were right under the surface only to emerge when we had to adapt to virtual business practices. And many would argue that the technological advances made over the last 20 years allow business to continue without trade shows. Costs can be reduced, sales and ROI can easily be measured and brands can remain true to their ideals through business websites and e-commerce platforms.
This digital ecosystem allows for businesses to exist and build relationships just as they would at a trade show. Products can be bought and sold directly through social media platforms, on brand websites and with sites like The Folklore Connect and TradeGala. The Folklore provides a multidimensional approach to sales by allowing retail buyers to research and connect with African fashion brands at anytime from anywhere in the world. Trade shows don’t have the total access that many people now expect for their product purchases.
Ultimately, the future of trade shows depends on the attendees. People may believe that organic meetings in an event space will produce stronger connections and more genuine sales. Some may think that kind of direct contact is no longer necessary with the access and transparency that e-commerce provides. But just as the pandemic showed us, the reality of business and the world itself is constantly changing and evolving, so maybe we should be, too.