2020 Perspective (as Predicted in 2010)

2020 Perspective

Back in January 2010, I wrote a letter to my TradeShowTips e-zine subscribers from the perspective of 10 years in the future. Now that we’ve arrived at that milestone, it only seems appropriate to pull that letter back out and see how far we’ve come (or not).

So for this “back to the future” post, you’ll find my original writing is the main text, while I’ve added a few comments in the blue blocks as appropriate to clarify.


I’ve always tried to look down the road in this industry, watching and sensing what’s coming next. I was talking about road shows and virtual shows when most people still felt threatened by them, and also jumped whole-hearted into social media as soon as the tools began to appear. So with this new decade, I felt it appropriate to cast a 10-year vision of where the exhibit industry will be in 2020. (And in all fairness, this perspective was inspired by an article I read in the Las Vegas Sun on the future of that city, as seen in 2020.)

A 2020 Perspective

No one can forget the dreary days back in 2009 and 2010, when trade show attendance was plummeting throughout nearly all industries. At that time, many people were predicting the demise of the trade show industry, sacrificed to the new trend of virtual shows.

But as the future unfolded, that didn’t prove to be the case. In fact, the two “worlds” have found a way to coexist in harmony. Most physical shows now have a virtual component to extend their events throughout the year. Some have a gaming system-style interface, offering nearly lifelike interactions. You can actually see and talk with other exhibitors and attendees, right from your office or any other location. For smaller shows (with smaller budgets), there are a myriad of other options that still provide an enhanced – although less realistic – experience. The term “pop-up exhibit” has a new meaning, with most shows offering interactive show floor maps where each booth is clickable, bringing up a photo and FAQ sheet for that exhibitor.

Some shows are better at this than others, but they’re still not near-lifelike interactions. Keep in mind at the time I wrote this, apps like Second Life were getting lots of buzz. (Google it if you’re not familiar.) But trade shows aren’t video games.

Show apps may sometimes offer interactive floor maps, but they often focus more on building a list of favorites and/or scheduling meetings. (Core-Apps does have a floor route planning feature in their apps.) Some shows offer audio tours or gamified elements.

Another reason for the success of these virtual components is the mandatory green legislation, which has changed nearly every aspect of physical exhibiting: lighting, construction, carpeting, literature/giveaways, and carbon footprints. With these restrictions, there is a compelling need to buy local in the show city, to reduce both shipping and waste. Industry vendors have developed branch offices in all the major trade show cities (and also many second-tier cities) in order to avoid losing business as clients move from one city to another. There is also an extensive network of professional booth staff for hire, to help companies save on travel costs and carbon impact. In addition, most convention centers now feature solar panels and vegetable gardens on their rooftops, offering both energy savings and cleaner air.

While there’s no mandatory green legislation (save for eliminating plastic straws), there are a lot more options for ways to be more eco-friendly. There are a wealth of sustainable material options for building exhibit displays. LEDs are now the standard for lighting. And there’s even flooring made from recycled materials. (We actually have carpet made from plastic water bottles in our house!)

Exhibitors typically take less print materials to shows. And if they’re not scaling back on the amount of giveaways (which they should), at least they’re often donating them to local schools or other organizations after the show. Signage and badges are often designed to be reused at future events.

More food is brought in from local sources – some is even grown on the roof of the convention center! There’s been a big push to donate leftover food to local homeless shelters, with Good Samaritan laws protecting the donors. Other food waste is often composted.

Security is one aspect that no one in 2010 wanted to admit was lacking. But unfortunately, incidents around the globe no longer allowed the exhibit world to hide its head in the sand any longer. While entering a convention center is still far from the routine at airports, security checkpoints are an added component of shows, both in logistics and expense. While exhibitors initially grumbled about the increase in booth fees, they now see the added services as a way to increase show attendance.

It seems security hasn’t changed all that much in spite of the rising number of mass shootings at venues of all kinds during the past decade. I won’t go off on that soapbox here, but if you want to know more about this important topic, you’ll find several posts here on Trade Show Insights.

Back in 2010, the GenYs were just beginning to impact the trade show industry. Now they have become an integral part of the changes, driving much of the technology and environmental sensitivity transitions. Their expectation of fluid change has become standard, now that most of the change-resistant generation has retired. Every show is expected to have a social media component, regardless of how sophisticated the virtual show is. Exhibitors and attendees are able to find each other and form connections long before they set foot on the show floor. Now the physical show is more like a school reunion, rather than a first date.

The Boomers aren’t yet retiring, but GenYs (Millennials) are now the largest part of the workforce. Social media and apps play a role in creating community, but all of that technology must be embraced by the show organizer … which some are still hesitant to do.

It’s been exciting to watch the industry transition over the past decade, as trade shows have not died, but rather evolved into responsible corporate citizens. And with our burgeoning technology, we are not resisting face-to-face events, but rather craving them as a way to stay connected.

Wow – that’s so true! In fact at the time I wrote this letter back in 2010, I didn’t realize just how much it would be true in our present-day, over-digitized culture.

© 2010, 2020 Marlys K. Arnold  (As shared in the January 2020 – and 2010 – TradeShowTips Online. To receive tips like this in your inbox every month, please take a moment to fill out this request.)

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One Response

  1. Marlys Arnold January 24, 2020
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