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What Is A Trade Show?

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What is a trade show and why are trade shows important?Having been in the trade show industry forever (or at least for what seems like forever), I recently realized that I (incorrectly) assume that everyone knows what a trade show is. But although I hang out with many trade show veterans and trade show warriors like myself who know exactly what a trade show is (because we've been to more trade shows and have designed more trade show displays and have manned more trade show booths and have given out more trade show giveaways than we can ever possibly remember), several of my other friends and I'm guessing a whole lot of people in general really don't know what a trade show is, or they have the wrong idea of what trade shows are, and sometime have complete wrong misconceptions about why trade shows exists and what their purpose is. So with that in mind, I thought I'd write down my thoughts on What Is A Trade Show, why trade shows and conventions are (still) relevant and important, and by understanding that, explain who can benefit from trade shows and why. So, let's begin to answer the question, what is a trade show?

1. A Short History of the Trade Show
2. What is a Trade Show?
3. What a Trade Show Is NOT (common misconceptions and myths)
4. Are Trade Shows Still Important (and what about the new alternatives)?
5. Who Can Benefit From a Trade Show?

1. A Short History of the Trade Show

Trade shows have been around for a long, long time, though not in their current form with all the flashy trade show displays and noisy trade show booths overflowing with all the popular free trade show giveaways... Trade shows (more than likely) didn't exist back in the time of the cave man (though I think I've seen a few modern day trade show Neanderthals manning a few trade show booths). The ancient bazaars of Babylon could probably be considered an example of some of the first real "trade fairs", where merchants would gather in the local town square to peddle their goods and wares, and shoppers would learn to haggle and barter to the best bargain or deal. In the middle ages in medieval Europe, the town square trade fair continued as a place to meet and exchange goods and services for barter or cash. Then with the arrival of the mercantile era and the beginning of increased world trade, the size and number of trade fairs grew. Subsequently the arrival of the Industrial Revolution with its modern factories and mass production brought a massive increase in the number of manufactured goods which meant more commerce, more trading, and more goods

The modern trade fair / trade show / convention probably has its roots in the World Trade Fairs which started in the 1850's and ran through the beginning of World War II.  During this period, the world's fairs were a popular method to demonstrate and show off new science and technology to millions of amazed visitors. Historians credit a series of influential world's fairs during the later part of the 19th century with shaping modern trade shows. The first of these influential worlds fairs was the Crystal Palace Exhibition in London in 1851, which drew 6 million visitors. The Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876 attracted 10 million visitors. Perhaps the most influential worlds fair was the 1893 World's Columbia Exposition in Chicago, which is credited with popularizing midway rides among other things. And we must not forget to thank the 1889 Exposition Universelle World Fair in Paris for the Eiffel Tower, which was supposed to be a "temporary" structure, but still serves as a world landmark to this day, and held the claim of being the tallest structure in the world for four decades until the Chrysler Building took the honor when it opened in 1930.

In the beginning of the 1900s there were less than a hundred trade associations in the US, but that would change as the century progressed. For the first half of the century the growth in the number of trade associations (and association sponsored trade shows was steady, but then in 1960s with a dramatic increase in new technologies and industries, there was a corresponding increase in the number of trade associations, and also in the number and size of trade shows, trade fairs, and conventions. By 2004, the US could boast of over 80,000 trade associations, which would hold trade shows that would draw over 21 million people. Trade shows had become a huge industry unto themselves. In 2009, the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, one of the largest North American trade shows which showcases some of the biggest tech companies in the world and which is used to introduce their latest products to the world, had 2,700 exhibitors, and drew over 100,000 attendees, though that number of attendees was dwarfed by the New York International Auto Show at the Jacob Javitz Center in New York which pulled in over a million attendees in 2009.

2. What is a Trade Show?

A trade show or trade fair generally focuses on a particular industry or technology, and provides a chance for companies (exhibitors) to set up a temporary trade show booth space to showcase their products and services. A trade show provides an opportunity for other companies, or in some cases, the general public, to attend the trade show and to visit the various trade show displays to see the various products and learn more about them, as there are often live demonstrations of the exhibitors' newest products and technology. The key to a trade show and what sets it apart from other types of marketing is the face-to-face human interaction (on a massive scale). A trade show is a formal venue where a large number of people can meet in person to see and discuss a wide variety of products and learn more about them. In addition, a trade show also provides a great opportunity to the exhibiting companies for media coverage of new products and ideas.

3. What a Trade Show Is NOT (common misconceptions and myths)

A trade show is not a chance to escape a cold Winter climate to take a vacation in a warmer locale. It is not a junket, or a way to get out of work for a week. It is not a place to wander aimlessly trick-or-treating each trade show booth in the hopes of getting some free swag (aka trade show giveaways). It is not a place to go in hopes of being able to ogle scantily-clad booth babes. It is not a place to sit in the trade show booth complaining that there are no qualified prospects stopping by. It is not a party, but it also doesn't have to be a "chain-gang hard labor sentence" experience. To outsiders, it may appear to be just a corporate junket or a waste of time, but for prepared and experienced trade show exhibitors and trade show attendees and visitors alike, a trade show is one of the most effective places to meet face-to-face and get business done!

4. Are Trade Shows still important (and what about the alternatives)?

The short answer is YES. Trade shows are just as important and relevant today as they have been in the past. Social media and the internet are new technologies that can compliment your trade show marketing efforts, but they shouldn't replace them. And other old school marketing technologies like television advertising and direct marketing should also remain complimentary additions where they make sense. Office calls are a way to meet customers face-to-face one at a time, but nothing can replace a trade show as a way to meet a lot of customers face-to-face in a focused environment and in a limited time frame.

5. Who can benefit from a Trade Show?

Those people who know what a trade show really is and who understand its true potential are the ones who can benefit from trade shows. Those who prepare and learn in advance can benefit from a trade show. Those focused individuals who do their research and who have the right attitude, and who set reasonable attainable goals can certainly benefit from trade show marketing. Start your trade show marketing education with a few of these articles...

seven rules for trade show success  |  trade show giveaway ideas
trade show booth ideas  |  trade show display ideas  |  trade show booth graphic basics


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