For exhibit and event professionals  

Trade shows: Ready for an Upgrade?

February 8, 2016 By Editor

Industry veteran Michelle Bruno speaks out on the future of trade shows.

Trade show upgrade Michelle Bruno

Michelle Bruno has a wake up call for the tradeshow industry.

As someone who’s spent more than 30 years with event planners and exhibition logistics, she worries that the industry is stuck in the past and needs a new a new approach to avoid becoming out of date.

Milchelle Bruno, writer, blogger on event technology“There aren’t enough progressive thinkers watching what’s happening outside the event industry—specifically virtualization and digitization of businesses.” Bruno says. “We’re going to be so stuck in this old way of doing things that we won’t be able to adapt when huge, fundamental changes come down.”

While historical ROI or exhibit efficiency numbers are fuzzy before the mid-1960s, the basic trade show model has been the same for more than 50 years. There's a conference or expo, exhibitors flock to show off their goods, and attendees come to learn.

It’s the core principle that’s driven the industry for more than half a century. Bruno sees that digital technology is having a strong impact on the trade show model. The hope would be that this impact will goad industry visionaries into updating the traditional approach.

Millennials and Boomers — Different Approaches

Why is that? There’s an array of factors, but Bruno theorizes that a big reason is that Baby Boomers and Millennials network in very different ways. (See our white paper “Generational Marketing Balancing Act—Now We Are Six.” )

For Boomers, conferences have been a perfect venue to entertain a large group of like-minded professionals with speeches, award dinners, exhibits, parties, fun runs and concerts. Bringing in Bon Jovi to headline a conference was reason enough to dish out $1,250 for a two-day pass.

But that’s not what Millennials want. Sure, they won’t turn down a free concert if they’re already there, but Millennials prefer to connect with others in lower-key settings like roundtable discussions filled with lively conversation.

It sounds counterintuitive, but the online generation craves the in-person peer-to-peer connection. Trade shows could deliver these experiences if they are made a priority.

“Is 3,000 people in a room with food and a band really ‘networking?’” Bruno asks.

Looking for On-Demand Experiences

And while conference and expo planners can make the type of change she believes to be necessary, exhibitors can also play a role in pushing things forward.

But marketing departments for exhibit programs dedicate so much time and so many resources to event-specific logistics that they can get lost in the underbrush and lose sight of the overall landscape. In other words, marketers aren’t able to spend enough time asking the broad questions that spark creative solutions because they are bogged down by day-to-day logistics.

The first companies that realize change is in the wind will start finding unique ways of engaging with Millennials and discover the power of the on-demand experiences Millennials crave.

Bruno believes that the industry needs forward-looking thought leadership. “We wait to see who’s going to do something and see if they succeed or fail before we take any risk,” Bruno said. “We have such an attitude of risk aversion that it’s keeping the industry from moving forward.”

Simply put, the industry needs to accommodate the new and spurn some of the age-old traditions surrounding exhibiting.

Some Recommendations

Among the things she recommends that would help are:

  • Events should make the attendee list available to all exhibitors.

In an era of transparency, it’s becoming questionable business practice to withhold any information that will benefit exhibitors. Show management may have held attendee lists in the past as a draw for exhibitors, but if the only reason an exhibitor goes to a show is for an email address, is that really the best use of resources? Instead, why not allow exhibitors a chance to customize their presentation down a specific person before they even step on the floor.

  • Exhibitors should hand off the logistics to a third-party and focus their energy on creativity.

With so much time committed to show services, shipping, graphics and the myriad of other pre-show duties, the time is right for marketing departments to outsource these responsibilities to companies that specialize in event and exhibit design and execution. This would open up their creative energy and allow exhibit marketers to maximize the impact of their program.

  • Event planners and exhibitors should make it easier to integrate digital marketing.

While most companies are invested in digital marketing campaigns that attract and convert inbound leads, there hasn’t been as much movement in inspiring potential attendees through the same avenues. A conference or trade show can provide an in-person experience that a digital pitch can only dream of, so there needs to be an increased use of segmenting, targeting and personalizing messages to attract leads to industry events.

That’s just a start. Michelle Bruno would be the first to say there’s no magic solution for maintaining trade show attendance and effectiveness. But she and a growing consortium of like-minded thinkers are asking for the industry to acknowledge that the current status quo is rapidly becoming outdated. And with Millennials moving up through the workforce, action must be taken very soon.

“Why don’t we as an industry figure out how exhibitors can get super high-quality leads and then in an set number of months, actually convert?” Bruno asks. “Why aren’t we focusing on that solution?”


About Michelle Bruno, MPC

Michelle Bruno began her event-industry career on the supplier side. After earning a degree in Finance, she joined the family business, an international exhibition transportation logistics company. Over ten years, she helped build the company’s operation managing transportation logistics for shows in North America, Europe, Asia, and South America.

When the firm her mother founded was sold, Bruno shifted her attention to the event planning side of the industry. She opened her own company, Bruno Group Signature Events, to organize meetings, conferences, and public events. She earned her CEM and CMP designations and was recognized as Meeting Planner of the year by her local MPI chapter.

In the late 2000s, Bruno placed her company on hold to take a position with a global Fortune 500 advertising agency. Eventually though, she went back to college to earn a Master of Professional Communication degree and leveraged her experience in the live-event industry to forge a career in technical content development and content strategy.

Today, Bruno is a writer, blogger, publisher and technology journalist based in Salt Lake City, Utah. She develops content and content strategies for event-industry technology companies at Bruno Group Signature Services. She writes about event innovation at Fork in the Road Blog and publishes Event Tech Brief, a weekly newsletter and website on event technology. She also serves as a judge for multiple event-technology competitions.

You can reach Michelle on Twitter at @michellebruno.

Ed. note: We'd like to hear your thoughts on whether you agree with Michelle Bruno's assessment and what you think could be done to update the crazy, wonderful, people-based industry we all work in.


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