What Does The Future Hold For The Trade Show Industry?

-- Last updated September, 2020

No one can see into the future with certainty, but many wonder, what does the future hold for the trade show industry? The pandemic - or at least the government reaction to it - forced people to change their behaviors.

We're primarily social animals, and we've been locked down, prevented from doing business and prevented from socializing or having normal face to face interactions for several months now.

All of the states have now issued plans to help businesses reopen after the COVID-19 shutdown. Some business owners are worried that people might be scared to start interacting again, in fear of new outbreaks. While this might be true, it is also possible that people will rebound quickly, as might starving people that we're finally able to find food.

Morgan Stanley recently released a prediction that half of the workforce could be back to work this summer, with the rest returning in the fall. As we all know, that didn't happen.

what does the future hold for the trade show industry?  - Photo from Comic Con Trade Show

Most likely is a gradual recovery, as the most cautious of us, or the most at risk, wait for a bit to watch for a resurgence in infections.However, it seems recovery is finally in view at the end of the tunnel. Indeed, as of this writing, OSHA has already published recommended safe practices for businesses that are reopening.

Trade show industry sources are forecasting a gradual restart to trade shows in the 4th quarter 2020, and close to normal activity in 1Q 2021, barring any large recurrence of COVID. This timing will, of course, be adjusted depending on infections. 

Still, if the pandemic is truly under control, businesses will be under huge pressure to start trying to recoup the revenues lost from the lengthy shutdown. And as we all know, trade shows provide a huge opportunity to see lots of customers face to face and do lots of product demos and business meetings in a short period of time.

There is no doubt that convention centers and show management will need to embrace safety measures. These will certainly include lots of sanitizer dispensers and hand washing, plenty of signs reminding people of the necessary precautions. 

It will also include provisions for cleaning all the frequently touched surfaces, as well as increased ventilation filtering capacity and possibly wearing masks. Ways to control social distancing at shows needs to be explored - this might mean controlling traffic flow lanes, and possibly extending the length of a show an extra day or two, in trade for limiting daily attendance.

The World Health Organization recently issued some guidelines for mass gatherings that should certainly be reviewed as events plan to resume their trade shows. 

Other options include asking attendees to schedule their appearance or could be provided with tickets for specific days - again, helping to limit the crowds and ultimately control social distancing. 

Some locations and some airlines have discussed requiring a COVID test before traveling - these could also be used at show entrances, perhaps along with temperature sensors like some European buildings have adopted. There are lots of ways to solve the problem; the exact methods chosen will likely vary with the city and the show, at least for the near future. 

In the interim, trade shows continue to change in other ways too. If you want your trade show exhibit program to be successful in the months and years ahead, here’s a look at some of those other trends.

In the Future of the Trade Show Industry, Technology Will Be King

Technology will touch virtually every aspect of your exhibit program in the future. And it’s already started. Interactive experiences are commonplace in trade show exhibits these days. 

Tools like badge scanners, tablet kiosks, and customized apps have changed the way we interact with attendees. But that’s just the beginning.

Imagine a future where your booth staffers could wear internet-enabled glasses and an earpiece. The glasses would scan an attendee’s badge as they enter the show, or from a distance, and alert you to their presence. 

The earpiece would provide specifics about that person, allowing your staffers to engage in a dynamic conversation.

More technology is on the way. In a web-based world, it’s no longer necessary to wait until the next show for attendees to find what they’re looking for. The trade show experience must offer something that can’t be delivered through the internet.

The primary way this new value can be added is through education and entertainment. These are much easier to provide in the face-to-face environment of the trade show floor.

Product demonstrations will take on a more theatrical flair, with increased technological support (3D simulations, interactive screens, and content delivered to attendees’ cell phones). Gaming will find a place in some exhibitors’ booths, too. 

Attendees could engage with the product in ways not possible elsewhere. Some brands will create new showcases for their products using “wearable tech” virtual reality devices.

Some futurists have even suggested that the trade show itself should be completely rethought. They would create a scenario where top representatives of the industry would choose the best products and services. These would then be showcased in this new environment. Think less like traditional trade shows and more like the Academy Awards ceremony.

In the Future of the Trade Show Industry, Exhibitors Will Make It Personal

The kind of personalization that has found its way into other forms of modern marketing will make its way onto the trade show floor. Exhibitors looking to make the most of this trend will begin customizing their trade show marketing efforts. They will appeal to individuals, not groups.

Effective marketing in this environment will require anticipating the needs of prospects. Next, trade show appeals must be tailored to their specific preferences. Providing these customer-centric, personalized experiences will create a deeper connection with the exhibitor’s brand. The result will be a richer, more memorable experience for the prospect, perhaps even shortening the sales cycle.

Savvy exhibitors will focus more attention on market research. Why? Because there will be more data available, and it will be more easily accessible. Their goal will be to learn all they can about their target prospects. They will then be capable of predicting attendees’ behavior. That gives them the ability to create these personalized in-booth experiences.

In my opinion, embracing this change is necessary for successful trade show exhibiting in the years ahead. Solutions and practices that worked in the past are becoming outdated and ineffective.

In the Future of the Trade Show Industry, Social Media Will Continue To Be Relevant

We all recognize the revolution that social media has brought to the trade show floor. I’ve heard it said that social media seems to have been designed with trade shows in mind.

Think about it. These events are chaotic for attendees because exhibitors bombard them from all sides. Shows are also just a few days long, so attendees can’t possibly see everything they would like to. 

Social media channels allow you to connect with these attendees. You can easily offer them incentives to visit your trade show exhibit. You couldn’t do this effectively in any other way.

Social media will continue to support the power of face-to-face interactions. These can only happen on the trade show floor. Think about how you’ve used (or should be using) Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. They enhance your exhibiting efforts, offering content that’s relevant and delivered in real-time.

Now imagine what might come next that could offer even better ways for you to connect with show attendees. If you’re not making the most of what’s already available, you won’t be ready to embrace the next new thing.

I believe social media is a valuable tool to help trade show exhibitors. It allows them to reach prospects and offer information to act on immediately. This has real value for those who embrace it and make the most of it.

In the Future of the Trade Show Industry, we should be optimistic

We need to stay positive and optimistic when it comes to the future of the trade show industry. While the pandemic may put a damper on scheduled show events, the shows that do happen will continue to get bigger, better, and stronger. The more marginal shows will be done away with. We may also begin to see a more local audience in attendance. 

What Other Changes Will We See in the Trade Show Industry?

As we look ahead to the future of the trade show industry, there are a few changes we will definitely want to be aware of.

  • Capped Capacity

  • While restrictions are eased back slowly, there is still going to be capped capacity for many events. This isn't something that is going to go back to normal right away. This simply means putting a cap on how many attendees can gather at the venue at one time.
  • This can be good news for some exhibitors, however. The tickets for the expo will be given to those with a genuine interest in your industry, so you can use this to find better leads. 
  • Everything Going Virtual

  • Right now, many people are hosting virtual trade show events online so as not to miss a beat. They are trying to stay a few steps ahead of the game. More people are getting to be more comfortable with technology, which is making this kind of avenue a more accepted one. It also puts you at less risk than for your health than if you were to physically attend.
  • Outdoor Retailer Events

  • We may even see a rise in how many outdoor retailer events we have. It is much easier to distance while outdoors, and in the exhibition industry, this means higher attendance for industry trade shows.


Whether we realize it or not, trade show exhibiting is constantly evolving. We can continue to do the same old thing with the same old tools if we choose. But, likely, doing so will only lead to diminishing results. Those results could be much better if we take on the changes that are happening in the exhibition industry. 

We must position ourselves to meet future trade shows with new plans and new tools. And after the lengthy business shutdown, everyone is anxious to maximize our marketing impact and sales, so don't forget to evaluate all of the available new tools.

If your trade show exhibit isn’t prepared for the future, we can help. Whether you need a few new accessories like lighting and literature racks, new digital trade show tools, or modular components that can be reconfigured so you can use the same booth for your biggest and smallest events, we’ve got what you need. We can also help with new custom graphics to breathe fresh life into your current exhibit space.

If that display of yours isn’t ready to face the future, let us help. We can design a brand new trade show booth that will meet your current and future needs. Give us a call at (800) 676-3976 or email [email protected].

For more, check out our article on webrooming or how to use video in trade show displays.

Trade Show Industry FAQ

Still curious about the trade show industry? Check out our answers to some of the more commonly asked questions below.

How big is the trade show industry?

Last year, in 2019, the trade show industry generated a revenue of over $15.7 billion in US dollars and accounted for almost half of the global total. Nearly half of that revenue came from registration, and another quarter was from exhibit sales. It is considered a major industry that impacts current events in real-time. 

Over the years, it has increased on a year over year basis in each quarter except for in 2016. The coronavirus pandemic has definitely slowed things down but is making room for more virtual trade show events to take place.

Why are trade shows so important for business?

Trade shows offer a business the platform they need to market to customers and sell their products or services. The initial leads and sales will then turn into more leads and sales in the future, meaning that you will find greater success. It is your opportunity to spread awareness for your brand.

Are trade shows going to continue to stay relevant?

Like many things right now, trade shows are going to have to find ways to adapt these days to stay relevant. With big trade shows facing cancellation, we are looking to virtual trade show options to remain relevant. This need has led to many new innovations and more creative ways of exhibiting.

Could a trade show brand a virtual trade event that encompasses everything rather than vendor and industry communications becoming piecemeal?

While there is really nothing that can replace the networking value and efficiency of a trade show, turning them into virtual events is one way to encompass everything. We need to find creative ways to recreate the physical experience of going to a traditional trade show virtually. 

This means virtual events need to be more immersive, emphasizing interactivity, networking, and fun. So, industry professionals can brand a virtual trade event effectively themselves without having to necessarily reach out to multiple vendors as they might with a physical trade show event at a convention center.