Trade show transformation: tech PRs must rethink their tactics

As pandemic restrictions ease, the shift away from entirely physical or virtual events to hybrid ones is likely to result in a new trade show model – and demands a change in how PRs approach these tech calendar highlights

This summer will likely chart a course for the future of trade shows, says Richard Fogg
This summer will likely chart a course for the future of trade shows, says Richard Fogg

It’s always struck me as odd that the global technology industry should revolve around a series of physical trade shows, but you can set your tech industry watch by events. Handled well, they can be a money-spinner for tech clients of all sizes – not to mention a massive source of revenue for tech PR firms. And we have a summer like no other ahead of us.

InfoSec, CogX and MWC Barcelona, bizarrely, in June. Money 20/20 Europe in September. Web Summit in November. So, for many of us, Harold Macmillan’s quip will ring true – we’ll be planning and executing for the ‘usual’ events, dear boy, but not in the ‘usual’ way.

In the past 14 months we’ve learned that fully virtual events are much less of a big deal for PR professionals. They don’t offer the platform for ambitious launches or campaigns. They don’t meaningfully impact the news cycle. And they’re not the financial highlights in an agency’s calendar that their physical brethren are. So 2021 will be different.

Peddled by beleaguered organisers as the best of both worlds, hybrid events will be the norm. MWC will likely be one of the most bio-secure places in Europe, but the ‘disinfect it and they will come’ strategy will not deliver the trade show of dreams.

I, and thousands more, will be there, but many MWC stalwarts are either nervous, grumpy about four back-to-back 18-hour mask-wearing marathons, or struggling against corporate travel bans. Surpassing MWC’s usual mind-boggling 110,000 physical attendees is not on the cards, but in-person plus virtual? The sky’s the limit.

One 2020 virtual event massively scaled its attendee numbers by doing deals with major buyers – in one case, attracting 1,000 delegates from one company, instead of four in 2019. The buying audience grew dramatically.

What can tech PR pros do to capitalise on this situation? Think bigger and broader.

Develop compelling, story-led, multi-stage, multimedia programmes encompassing events. With conference viewership up, speaker slots are even more valuable – bust every sinew to land podium/panel spots.

Use thought leadership strategies to trail those platforms in the preceding weeks, arming clients to drive awareness and engagement in advance. Well-timed news, effectively re-marketed, will drive last-minute buzz and attendance. Previews, reviews, and live at-event content will appeal to those with FOMO like never before.

In most cases, conference content will be available after the show, opening opportunities to reach an even wider audience. Tactics must work seamlessly on- and offline, so details like connectivity and quality kit for broadcasting press conferences, demos or conducting interviews will be key. Maybe steer clear of branded facemasks, though.

Hybrid events scale the opportunity to deliver results. If the numbers are there, this summer will likely chart a course for the future of trade shows. It’s up to PR people to position themselves at the centre of this future.

Richard Fogg is chief executive of CCgroup

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