Trade shows have always been a basic element of how the security industry does business - until the year 2020, that is. This year has seen the total collapse of the trade show model as a means of bringing buyers and sellers face to face. The COVID-19 pandemic has effectively made the idea of a large trade show out of the question. Today, even air travel seems incredibly risky, or at minimum a huge hassle.

The good news is that the industry has adapted well without the shows. A series of “on-line shows” has emerged, driven by the business world’s increasing dependence on Zoom and other video conferencing platforms. The fact is, 2020 has provided plenty of opportunities for sellers to connect with buyers. It’s easy to dismiss these sessions as “Death by PowerPoint,” but some of them are incredibly informative. And conveniently accessible from the comfort of a home office.

Internet transforming businesses

We have already seen how the online world makes it easier than ever to connect with customers. In the consumer space, businesses like Uber, Shopify and Airbnb have proven that the Internet can transform how business is done. But in the security industry, we hear: “You can’t replace the value of meeting face to face.” That’s definitely true to some degree.

A lesson of 2020 is the need to take a hard look at the economic model of trade shows

However, the reality of 2020 suggests that there are alternatives that are almost - emphasis on almost - as good. And that don’t cost as much. And that don’t take away as much time from the office. And that don’t involve the effort of schlepping luggage through an airport yet again to a hotel in a beautiful city you will never see where you will spend three days in a big exhibit hall eating overpriced hot dogs and regretting your choice of footwear.

Economic model of trade shows

Sure, you’ll meet up with old pals, and get some value out of the experience. But how much value versus the cost? A lesson of 2020 is the need to take a hard look at the economic model of trade shows - how much they cost versus the value they provide. Considering how well we have gotten along without them, one wonders how and why trade shows have become such an integral part of our industry, and of hundreds of other industries, for that matter.

I have had many conversations with exhibitors at trade shows in the last several decades. I have heard probably thousands of complaints about the slowness of the foot traffic, the high costs of exhibiting, the price and hassles of travel. The question I have often wondered (and asked): Is it worth it?

Defray the costs

Usually, the complaining exhibitor will reluctantly admit that it is, and/or provide some other justification, such as one of the following:

  • All my competitors are here. If I don’t exhibit, it sends the wrong message to the market. That’s why I need to have the largest booth near the front of the show, too, because it’s all about perception and positioning ourselves in the market.
  • We need the show for the sales leads, which drive our sales for the next six months. If I meet one large end user who turns into a big sale, the extra revenue pays for it all and makes everything worthwhile.
  • This is the only time I get to see my sales staff or other coworkers from around the country. We have a sales meeting this week, too, so it helps to defray the costs.

Success of alternatives

The realities of 2020, and the challenges to the business world, will impact the nature of commerce for years to come

Given the experience of the year 2020 without any trade shows, might some of these justifications melt away? At a minimum, companies will be taking a hard look next year to evaluate what they missed about the trade show experience, and more importantly, what the impact was on their business (if any).

What is the future of trade shows? After the 2020 hiatus, exhibitors and attendees alike will be starting with a clean slate, taking a fresh look, reexamining the value proposition with new eyes, braced by the successes (while acknowledging the failures) of alternatives that emerged as necessities during a global pandemic.

Ensuring safety and security

The realities of 2020, and the challenges to the business world, will impact the nature of commerce for years to come - including trade shows. During the pandemic, we have all had to reinvent ourselves, deploy new strategies, work around new challenges, and in the end, hopefully, emerge better for it. There’s no reason trade shows shouldn’t undergo the same transformation. And it’s likely the “new normal” could look very different.

The security market has found new opportunities during the pandemic, including new applications for existing technology and a renewed emphasis on the importance of ensuring safety and security. That positivity will hopefully carry our industry triumphantly into the new decade, and trade shows will adapt to find their place in the newly revitalized industry. As it should be.

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Larry Anderson Editor, SecurityInformed.com & SourceSecurity.com

An experienced journalist and long-time presence in the US security industry, Larry is SecurityInformed.com's eyes and ears in the fast-changing security marketplace, attending industry and corporate events, interviewing security leaders and contributing original editorial content to the site. He leads SecurityInformed's team of dedicated editorial and content professionals, guiding the "editorial roadmap" to ensure the site provides the most relevant content for security professionals.

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