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Is the mega trade show dead?

Last fall at the World Travel Market I spent several days conducting meetings, making new connections and absorbing all the interactions around me. After taking stock of my own experience and mulling over my observations, a huge question came to mind — are governments spending too much money on a formula that might no longer work?

Let me be clear — I believe in the power and impact of trade shows. For as tech-focused as we are now in a Twitter world where mobile devices are never far from our fingertips, face-to-face meetings are a crucial part of conducting business. Building relationships is at the core of an effective marketing strategy, and they yield a great return on investment (even though sometimes the return takes a while to receive). It was this emphasis on face-to-face relationship building that prompted me to consider the question about government spending and the trade-show formula.

I saw massive stands by countries (Spain, Turkey and several Middle East countries were particular standouts to me) with a compelling visual presence, but it seemed that few hotel companies had their own stands. The hotels joined their country stands, which created larger destination branding. The stands were a showcase for the destination experience. What was clear to me (and equally troubling) was that people manned their stands and waited for delegates to visit them — without an appointment. Or, there were stands left unattended, which basically conveys to delegates, “My destination is worth passing by.”

To me, this strategy didn’t make sense. Decades ago when I started in this business, hoteliers and tourism officials waited at their stands for people to visit, but today, our world and the travel industry are completely different. Today, you must make advance appointments in order to really maximize your investment. A program of structured, timed meetings (whether you set them yourself or attend a show that is shaped by an appointment process) is more substantive and yields stronger business, and thereby offers the greatest benefits. The best trade-show experience isn’t about people picking up brochures and business cards as they robotically go between the aisles. It should be about conversations and experiences (preferably personalized ones). Furthermore, trade shows should be manned by people who intimately know the product at hand and are serious about doing business — not people more interested in exploring the dynamic city in which the trade show is located.

People could pass your stand all show long, and they might think, “I need to stop there,” but never do because they are on their way to pre-scheduled meetings. So, I think it’s not so much a question of whether or not the trade show is dead — it truly can be a great showcase of travel experiences and travel selling. What should be gone, though, are strategies that simply don’t work.

What do you think?

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