The 2020 Mid-Year Economic Update_long

Are Virtual Trade Shows & Conferences Here to Stay?

John Caplan, the president of North America and Europe for Alibaba.com., says that digital trade shows are one virtual event that could be here to stay even when we’ve moved past the COVID-19 crisis.
virtual trade shows

Connecting with colleagues, customers and even competitors has been transformed during COVID-19. Staff meetings, sales calls and industry conferences have taken place almost exclusively on a screen.

But while most of us have become adept at Zoom, Skype, Webex and myriad other online interactive platforms, one important question remains: Will this trend of virtual events last?

John Caplan, president, North America and Europe, Alibaba.com., says that digital trade shows are one virtual event that could be here to stay — at least in some form or fashion — including the ones that his company has been hosting for the last six months.

Caplan was featured on the MDM Spotlight video series, Trade Shows Move Online, during which he dished on the rise of virtual trade shows amid COVID-19 and their future once — if? — in-person events become normal again.

Though Caplan doesn’t think virtual trade shows will ever completely replace live events, he does see a place for them in the post-COVID-19 world. After all, Caplan says, attending virtual events are less expensive, which means companies could have their entire sales force Zoom into an online seminar without the cost of flying them to, say, Las Vegas or Orlando for three days.

“As any business owner will tell you, there are two things they spend their time allocating — time and money,” Caplan says. “We think the Alibaba.com digital trade show is a better use of people’s time and money than the ‘old world’ model, but I do think the physical tradeshow will return. Just like peanut butter and jelly makes the perfect sandwich — you need both.”

For example, Caplan noted, the most recent Alibaba.com trade show had an average of 200,000 people online per day for the seven-day show. That far exceeds the number of salespeople or suppliers who cram into a convention hall.

“There’s no physical trade show that’s ever had that kind of traffic,” he says. “If you’re a seller, the ability to reach buyers in Dubai, Europe, here in the United States or Asia is too valuable an experience to pass up.”

Conferences Also Weighing Future

Not only are companies like Alibaba.com hosting virtual trade shows, but trade associations have been hosting their conferences online ever since early spring.

With summer in the rear-view, the fall event schedule upon us and distribution trade organizations like PTDA now pivoting to virtual, there’s also a question about when these types of industry-wide meetings will return to in-person rather than online.

Not necessarily, says Trish Lilly, the chief thought leadership officer and executive director of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributor’s Institute for Distribution Excellence. NAW was among the last distributor associations to host an in-person conference when it hosted its annual Executive Summit in Washington, D.C., in late January.

As trade shows and industry conferences moved to online over the ensuing months, she said the value of virtual events became apparent — even if it could never replace the vibe of chatting with something over dinner or a cocktail.

Once the pandemic has passed, she envisions live trade shows returning but virtual elements also enduring in some form. It should be the best of both worlds for wholesale distribution.

“What will associations learn from hosting virtual events that they might be able to incorporate into in-person events?” Lilly said in the MDM Premium article, The Conference Must Go On: Distribution Industry Pivots to Virtual Events. “Will in-person meetings be shorter? We don’t know. But I do think virtual is a very good supplement to what associations have provided through in-person events. While in-person events will continue when things are safe and people are feeling comfortable, I think the virtual element will be here to stay.”

Learn more about online trade shows by watching the free MDM Spotlight video, Trade Shows Move Online. And join us on Friday, Oct. 16, at 2 p.m. EDT for the next installment of MDM Live, featuring more discussion about how distributors have been responding to COVID-19.

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