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Different domain – the virtual tradeshow

Different domain – the virtual tradeshow

Different domain – the virtual tradeshow

With the 2020 tradeshow calendar decimated by Covid-19, manufacturers and show organisers have been quick to take events online. But can a virtual tradeshow ever replace the real thing? Caroline Moss investigates

The Adam Hall Group was one of the first to see the writing on the wall. Back in late February, the company announced it was pulling out of Frankfurt Prolight + Sound in response to public health advice surrounding Covid-19 and would instead livestream new innovations on its website on 31 March, the first day of the planned Frankfurt show.

There were doubtless those who viewed this move as premature. However, it wasn’t long before other companies started to cancel and, on 4 March, the Frankfurt show was postponed until the end of May. Illustrating the speed at which events progressed, just nine days later it was announced the 2020 edition was being cancelled altogether. This has since been followed by a slew of tradeshow cancellations stretching as far as Q4.

“We took a pioneering role within the industry; planning and implementation took place under great time pressure at an early stage when nobody could have known how the pandemic would develop,” explains Alexander Pietschmann, CEO of the Adam Hall Group.

Adam Hall hosted a livestreamed video talk of events industry members
Adam Hall hosted a livestreamed video talk of events industry members

As the situation unfolded, the company added a one-off, livestreamed industry talk with events industry leaders, which was particularly successful. “It showed us how strong the demand is for first-hand information, personal opinions and evaluations as well as possible solutions and ways out of the crisis,” says Pietschmann. “The virtual tradeshow was a new format for us, and one we will continue to develop in the future. Major events such as concerts were the first to be cancelled, and it looks as if these events will be the last to take place again. Accordingly, it is important to give our industry a loud voice, to make ourselves visible in the media and in politics and to work together on ways and solutions to make events possible again, while maintaining all safety precautions.”

Adam Hall’s virtual tradeshow may have been the first, but more and more companies have been finding ways of presenting new products they would have launched at one or more of the international platforms throughout the year, as well as connecting with clients and the industry in general. Manufacturers have taken matters into their own hands, including a consortium that participated in the Virtual Sound Summit on 30 April and 1 May. This included Sound Devices, Lectrosonics, Schoeps, DPA Microphones, K-Tek, Sonosax and Bubblebee Industries.

Virtual Sound Summit was a progression of some past collaborations between Lectrosonics, DPA Microphones and Sound Devices in various US cities. “Since NAB didn’t happen, Jon Tatooles of Sound Devices contacted me and suggested that we put something together in a virtual space,” says Karl Winkler, vice president, sales and marketing, Lectrosonics. “We had about 600 people viewing live on the first day, and about 450 on the second. These are numbers similar to how many visitors we might have at an NAB tradeshow. Slightly less perhaps, but still great considering that the cost to put all this together was very low.” Winkler thinks that part of the attraction was the fact the company introduced two new products during the event, and also cites some live and pre-recorded “tips and tricks” as being a good draw.

Another initiative was NAB Show Express, taken by NAB after its April tradeshow in Las Vegas was cancelled. Focusrite was one of the participating manufacturers, upgrading its sponsorship package to allow more resources to be uploaded. “It was important to us to be able to show our full product ranges that customers would have seen in person at the show,” says director of marketing, Hannah Bliss. “We also wanted to be able to add more ‘virtual business cards’ to our online profile so that our staff was visible and accessible. I am not sure that we saw much action on from those business cards, but we had a large spike from previous years on customers adding our brand to their list of interests and henceforth allowing us to contact them as sales leads. This increase in genuine leads was the big success of the show for us.”

Martin Audio presented its own virtual tradeshow on 20 May, which was a great success by any standard, according to director of marketing, James King. “We achieved over 800 registrations for the event,” he reveals. “To put this in context, this is the amount of people we would engage with at ISE or InfoComm in our demo room in a given week, and probably four times the amount we get to our UK Open Day events. Other than some advertising costs to help promote the event and people’s time, the cost to output was minimal, and significantly less so than a tradeshow-type event. The event was also incorporated into some Facebook Live streaming, and a recording has also been posted, so the potential reach is significantly beyond that too. We are working from home, and at the mercy of aesthetics, equipment and broadband fluctuations, but we managed to slide through any of that pretty well.”

The format used allowed viewers to see both presenters and presentation onscreen, and there was an open Q&A for topics that people wanted to discuss. King points to the elephant in the room, however: the ability to listen to speaker demos. “This is why we now team every tradeshow with a demo room, and the online format cannot replace that,” he says. “Our next jumping off point, dependent upon ability to have small and safe gatherings, will be to have a centralised show, professionally produced then beamed to the ‘world’, but critically to global distributor demo rooms. In small, safe environments people can gather to listen to the loudspeakers in demo rooms. While markets might start to reopen, we believe international travel will be circumspect, so we see this as an opportunity as we move forward.”

Now, in the first week of June, the AES Virtual Vienna tradeshow is taking place online. “AES was already in the traditional planning, organising and programming cycle for the scheduled AES Vienna Spring Convention when the Covid-19 pandemic made the physical event impossible,” says Colleen Harper, AES executive director. “Taking it online presented the most viable prospects for fulfilling the role AES Conventions play for the audio industry and our membership.”

While AES Virtual Vienna presents the same technical programme components as the physical conventions, it has chosen not to have a “virtual exhibition”, believing this to be a very different format from the usual in-person event. Instead, it has appointed five key Convention Partners, and put together four days of streamed workshop and student activities followed up by live Q&A sessions. One of the partners, Genelec, got involved to support the AES organisation. “We see the academic work that AES does as very important for the development of our industry and regard the work in the student chapters as important for the future wellbeing of our industry,” explains strategy advisory officer, Lars-Olof Janflod.

Virtual Vienna is also offering an on-demand library of workshops, papers, engineering briefs, technical tours of performance and production spaces in Vienna, student and career events and previously streamed sessions, all with ongoing Q&A chats. “We’ve had an enthusiastic response to taking the convention online and making it totally accessible internationally, as well as extremely affordable,” says AES director of sales and marketing, Graham Kirk. “This allows AES members and non-members, including first-time attendees, to participate without the sometimes-prohibitive travel and related expenses of attending a physical convention.”

The cost saving for attendees is vastly multiplied for companies taking part in a virtual tradeshow, as well as an attendant reduction in carbon footprint. But could the virtual ever take the place of the real thing? “There is no doubt a place for virtual meetings, webinars and the like, but this is a people industry and there is nothing like the physical interaction and unity of a live event,” says Lectrosonics’ Winkler. “It may take some time to fully come back, but it will return and so I see some delicate balance between a physical and virtual show in the future or indeed some hybrid solution.”

Adds Focusrite’s Bliss of her experience at Virtual NAB: “You have to spend a lot of money to be seen as a ‘featured’ brand virtually. At the actual show, as long as you are in a suitable area of the floor, you are going to be seen by those who are looking for you and customers who just happen to pass by, even if you have a smaller physical presence. So for that reason, I don’t think brands will ever want virtual tradeshows to replace the real-life ones in full. Maybe some hybrid model, but nothing can replace the in-person experience of seeing and touching products and speaking to product specialists and sales teams in person.”

Focusrite's Hannah Bliss
Focusrite's Hannah Bliss

“The gathering of people in the real world is the first and will always be the most important social network,” says Pietschmann. “We at Adam Hall will always focus first on events as we have known them so far. Nevertheless, digital, virtual, interactive streaming formats offer very interesting new ways of communicating with our customers and partners. The future will be hybrid events.”

Coming up, from 16–18 June, InfoComm 2020 Connected is going ahead with its summer Las Vegas show online, while InfoComm Southeast Asia is presenting the Inter:Act virtual platform which will run from 10 June to the year end. ConnecTechAsia has also announced that it is taking its postponed three-day BroadcastAsia, CommunicAsia and SatelliteAsia event online from 29 September – 1 October, the proposed dates of the postponed live event, before transitioning into a 24/7, 365-day interactive marketplace.

Blank Canvas will be covering all these events, both in the virtual space and also in our real-life, print editions.

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