Has the trade show had its day (at last)?

mwc 2020 blog post

By Mark Pinsent, Managing Director, Europe

I got my first full-time job in 1993, working for a small London-based PR agency that shall remain nameless (largely because it doesn’t exist anymore, so little point). I worked on a broad range of B2B PR clients, one of which was a contract cleaning company.

One day I was told to head to the London Olympia exhibition hall (or was it Earl’s Court, just down the road?) where Facilities Management ’93 was taking place. I was to take a stack of press releases, to seek out the press centre, and to stick them on the shelves. If I saw anyone who looked like a journalist, I was to grab them and drag them to my client’s stand to meet the CEO.

What the press releases claimed — or what contract cleaning innovations the CEO would be able to talk about — I cannot remember. Nor do I remember much about the show (strapline: ‘The Foundations to your Facilities’, I’d imagine) apart from having a discussion with a guy selling paper towels, who was keen to tell me how much more hygienic they were than hot air hand-dryers which were only good for spreading germs …

That might have some relevance to this tale, and I’ll return to it.

In the years since FM’93, I can’t remember how many trade shows I’ve been to. And here I still am, on the eve — or so I thought — of travelling to Barcelona for one of the world’s biggest technology shows, Mobile World Congress. And never have I grabbed my lanyard at the entrance, walked into the cavernous hall, gazed across the extravagant booths staffed by numerous sales people and not thought to myself: “Seriously, they can justify the investment in this?”

Trade shows aren’t cheap to attend, particularly those with a global reputation like MWC or the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Booking the space (tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars), creating the stand itself (the same), staffing the stand with people who have perhaps traveled thousands of miles, hotels, catering, stress balls and cupcakes to give away. And for what? To scan the badges of a few hundred people who might drift onto your stand as they kill time before the really flush companies start serving wine.

It’s amazing to me that trade shows continue to survive, let alone thrive. For the return on investment alone I can’t believe they make sense to many companies. More than that these days, however, the climate is changing.

I mean, literally, the climate is changing.

The environmental impact of companies collectively flying thousands of people across the globe to staff their stands, (let alone the attendees, and the kit and caboodle for the stands themselves), should be a scandal big enough in itself to bring trade show industry to a shuddering halt. I mean, MWC claims to attract 100,000 visitors from 200 countries around the world; CES 170,000 from 160. That’s some carbon footprint. One that would make a dent in any attending company’s sustainability claims. And the irony of tens of thousands of people physically gathering in the same location to talk about mobile communications is surely lost on nobody …?

And then, this year, coronavirus (and who knows what role hot air hand-dryers might have played in spreading it?).

Given the nature of the show, it’s no surprise that a good proportion of the companies and people that had planned to attend Mobile World Congress 2020 were coming from Asia, and China specifically. And though MWC organiser, the GSMA, put a brave face on things — “the show must go on (we’ve ordered canapes)” — as soon as significant brands started to announce that they wouldn’t be attending, citing the health and wellbeing of their own employees as a priority, the snowball effect took hold and the cancellation of the whole show was inevitable.

So, might this be it? Could this be the moment when business starts to really interrogate its need to attend its industry’s trade shows, with all the cost and environmental impact that entails?

Only time will tell. I’m not sure I’d regret their demise.

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