Is a Virtual Trade Show as Good as a Physical Show?

Does one want to digitally create the feeling of being in a crowd? Is this a plus or minus of a “real” show event?

A lot has been and will continue to be written about the future trends in business travel.  Will the forced cutbacks in travel over the last nine months result in companies completely changing their attitudes and approaches to business travel?  Have we shattered the previous paradigm and discovered a new better approach to business and travel?  Or will things quickly return back to historical normal attitudes?

The airlines bravely claim that business travel will quickly rebound.  But they would say that, wouldn’t they.  Some of us are much less certain.  We have discovered that we really like not needing to travel so much, and while we’re all getting a bit Zoomed out now, the time and cost efficiencies of a Zoom meeting compared to an in-person visit make up for its constraints, most of the time.  Which would you prefer – a day to travel to another city, a meeting day, and then either a late afternoon flight home or a second overnight and return the next day – two or three days of time, $1000 or so in above-the-line costs, and all for one or two meetings?  Or a simple Zoom conference, requiring no extra time, no travel, disruption, inconvenience, and hassle, and no extra cost?

I’ve always thought one of the few business travel purposes that might survive would be trade shows and conventions, although perhaps in altered form and reduced numbers.  Instead of attending half a dozen such events a year, people might cut back and be a bit more selective.

A big test of virtual trade shows was the annual Consumer Electronics Show this week.  This is an event that has been occurring for 53 previous years, sometimes with two shows a year, and more recently, with one single enormous show in early January, in Las Vegas.  It is either the largest or second largest trade show in the US, and in 2019, had 4,400 participating exhibitors and 182,000 attendees (trade only – the general public aren’t admitted).  Typically CES sprawls over multiple venues and in total consumes about 3 million net square feet of exhibit space.

For 2021, CES went fully “virtual”.  There was no physical presence in Vegas at all.  Instead, using the Microsoft Teams conferencing app, “attendees” could browse company web-pages from the CES website, see press releases, short video clips, and drop in on video conferencing for direct interactions with “exhibitors”.

It is relevant to note this wasn’t a last minute decision and hastily created alternate to a real show.  We’ve all had the best part of nine months to respond to the new virtual-meeting concept, and to come up with the best possible compromises and solutions to the lack of physical presence.  We’re not going to say the CES implementation of a virtual trade show represents the 100% absolute best state-of-the-art approach to such things, but it is a mature product that has been planned and developed for well over five months – the official announcement of the cancellation of the physical show was on 28 July last year.

Was it a success?  Is this the way of the future?  Should the airlines (and hotels, etc) be concerned or complacent about this sector of their business?

We simultaneously loved and hated the virtual experience.  We loved that we could do it in our casual clothes at home, and at zero cost.  We loved not walking miles and miles through the cavernous halls of the Las Vegas Convention Center while carrying an ever-heavier bag of brochures and stuff, and walking even more to surrounding hotels for more parts of the total show.  We loved not waiting in lengthy lines for shuttle buses, or the monorail, or taxis, or food, or sometimes even restrooms.  And so on.  CES is that it overloads Las Vegas every year and no part of the experience, from the flight there to the flight back home, is anything other than utterly awful.

But, there was a lot to not love, too.  While we had the perception of being more productive – we could quickly click from company profile to profile, from fact sheet to fact sheet, and if so minded, take a quick glance at the short video clips for each company’s “booth”, we realized we were getting less overall understanding of products and trends, and subtle undercurrents.

If one walks past a booth, there is so much more that one can take in and assess.  First, you get a feeling for the company by the standard of their booth – it seems that companies generally find it easier to make a decent press kit than to “dress” a booth attractively.  A related observation is the size of the booth and where it is located.  Is it a shared smallest-size booth in some out-of-the-way “low rent” area, or is it a multi-booth dedicated island, making a major statement of corporate presence?

Second, you get a sense for the impact of the company by seeing if it has a crowd of people all squashed in and around the booth, or if there are two bored representatives at the back of an empty booth, both avoiding eye contact with passers-by and playing with their phones.

In person, you get to see not only the main featured new product a company is presenting, but other products the company might have as well.  You get a context for the company and its products, and sometimes, some of the not-so-prominent products might be more interesting (particularly for someone like me – I love to find neglected products that you might not already be very familiar with).

And then, if a product seems of interest, you can usually touch it, handle it, use it.  You get a sense for build quality, ease of use, and can see not just a polished produced video presentation, but can try other options and ways of using the product, and get more of a sense of its overall interface and ease/practicality of use.  I’ve lost count of the number of products I’ve seen, over the years, that seem really good “on paper” and in a presentation video, but when I actually get to try one in person, discover weaknesses, flaws, and problems that change my perception totally from positive to neutral or negative.

There was a lot else missing, too.  There was no “buzz”, no excitement, no sense of a special event or awe when first walking into the LVCC.  My sense is that the lack of “special event” type things has been reflected in much less news coverage this year than in past years – while publications such as Engadget are focused 100% on creating as much coverage as possible of events such as CES, even they have been relatively muted this year.  It isn’t just the lack of news “out there”.  At the physical show, there were long lines of boxes of many different publications, all free, for attendees to take and read in their hotel rooms to get more of the “back story” to what was on the show floor.  There’s also not a phone book (remember them….) sized reference book of all the companies present, giving contact information to use for the rest of the year.

Similarly missing were things such as overheard conversations giving a feeling of what the main points of interest for the show are.  Even the “booth babes” were absent, and there was no longer the distinctive experience of many past years in sharing the Convention Center with a simultaneous “adult video” show, an event that took the concept of “booth babes” to an entirely new level.

On a more venal note, there were no giveaways, no competitions, no games, no samples and generally no “fun”.  No profusion of press kits on really useful reusable USB thumb drives, no giveaway notepads and pens!  I would invariably get an abundance of all such things, more than enough to last for the rest of the year.  No happy hours, free drinks, free food, free t-shirts, free hats, and all sorts of other things.

There were also no high-profile presentation fails when keynote speakers attempted to demonstrate new products and had them crash or otherwise spectacularly fail during a live event.  There was (presumably) no industrial espionage.  No unexpected “bonus” meetings, unexpected sightings of interesting products, no interaction with other attendees, and, in general, no “serendipity”.

There was also not the opportunity to schedule a series of “micro-meetings”, either with suppliers/exhibitors, or with colleagues, or anyone else at all.

In person, more often than not, I’d leave a show having unexpectedly encountered some product I’d not previously known anything about, and which I deemed to be the most interesting of all the products present.  But online, that just doesn’t seem to happen.  And when just staring at a screen for several hours, I found my attention span flagging a lot more quickly than if I were walking the floor, with all the varying sights, sounds, activities, and assorted other ever-changing elements to assail the senses.

Could CES have done a better job of creating a virtual event?  Perhaps.  I’m not intending this article to be a specific criticism of CES.  Rather it is an observation that virtual trade shows are not nearly as effective as “real” trade shows, and I suspect that’s a situation that is unlikely to be speedily resolved.

There are of course many ways a virtual trade show could be made more analogous to a physical trade show – for example, have a screen layout mimicking a trade show floor, and then have icons for each person logged in and show the booth they are “visiting”, and have participants create images of virtual booths that you can zoom in on, and then allow a visitor to click on parts of the image that show items of interest, have representatives initiate chat sessions “I see you’re looking at the XYZ widget, can I answer any questions” or whatever, and so on.

It is surprising that developers have not been more creative in how they create a digital virtual copy of a real world experience.  Where’s the virtual reality type presentations, for example?  At one of the leading technology events in the world, couldn’t high-tech have come together to create a better example of high-tech applying itself to a new marketplace need?

Perhaps the 2021 virtual CES, and all the other virtual events at present, did not invest as heavily into new technology as they could have and should have, in the expectation this would be a one-off event rather than the start of a new style of “trade show”.

We suspect this is not just an expectation but a hope, and one mirrored by the travel industry as a whole.  With probably over 200,000 people visiting Las Vegas for CES (registered attendees, exhibitors, and travel companions) and staying from three days to a week or more, the travel industry alone probably stands to benefit by at least a quarter billion dollars when the event is real rather than virtual; the Las Vegas Convention Center and its long list of contractors probably sees $100 million; and the CES organizers perhaps a similar amount (cheapest admission is $300).  Add it all up, and it is not unreasonable to say that a “real” CES sees half a billion dollars change hands.  But a virtual CES?  I can only guess, and would expect the total reduces to perhaps 10% – 20%, and none of that going to the travel industry or the Vegas economy overall.

Is that why the event was so lackluster and disappointing?  Was it designed to fail?  It is hard to see how any of the major players in the CES and other events would see virtual shows as something to extend, enhance, and encourage.

So, while we conclude that a virtual trade show is not nearly as good as a real trade show, we’re left wondering whether that is unavoidably and would always be the case, or if perhaps the same people who could make virtual shows better are also the people who stand to lose out if virtual shows replaced real shows.

4 thoughts on “Is a Virtual Trade Show as Good as a Physical Show?”

  1. At the risk of being simply written off as a Boomer, I completely agree with you. If one of the “best” and most interesting conventions of the year, with all the technology at their disposal, can’t pull off this virtual concept, then who can? Last Fall I attended an important virtual conference in my field, put on by one the leading tech vendors, and while convenient, was totally unsatisfying.

    Ignoring the occasional technical glitches that cropped up, not always being able to see or hear certain presentations, I was not all that drawn into it, and shared communication felt hollow and limited. The ability to run into old friends and clients, have sidebar conversations, be introduced to others, even meet new people and have a coffee or a drink, attending evening social events, even trade gossip, all those social and valuable interactions, were obviously unavailable. We are social animals, and are also stimulated by all of our senses. Just staring at a screen isn’t enough.

    My analogy would be going to college virtually or physically, two entirely different experiences. Or walking through Powell’s bookstore, browsing around, discovering things, talking to people, scanning displays and bookshelves, or buying a book from a website. Certainly quicker, easier, and more convenient. But much less enjoyable.

    Why take my Wife to Paris, when we can sit on the couch with a glass of wine and watch a travel show? Anyone who can’t distinguish the difference is missing out on life.

  2. Having done a number of virtual trade shows this last year aimed at the travel trade I found that it totally lacked the “buzz”. In addition, for smaller, niche companies trying to stand out, it’s very hard to do online. Cost-wise, they were not much less –and sometimes equal to– the cost of a regular show, excluding, of course travel and lodging and meals. There have been physical market places since the dawn of trade. I don’t think Zoom will totally supplant them.

  3. you lost me when your complaints mentioned booth babes. I hate these shows because of creeps like you who think because I am an attractive female (in business attire), I must be (willing to be) a booth babe.

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