Interview: Looking ahead at the future of trade shows

28. April 2022

Covid completely upended the trade show industry. But not all the changes were negative, argue Janina Poesch and Sabine Marinescu, editors of «Trade Fair Design Annual». A conversation about rethinking and adapting.

If you were the editor of «Trade Fair Design Annual» during a pandemic that caused trade shows to be cancelled left and right, what would you publish? Janina Poesch and Sabine Marinescu, co-editors of the publication, made the best of the trying circumstances. They created a special edition that focused on the variety of the trade show format, presenting roughly 50 projects and daring to look ahead at the future. The university-educated architects and trained journalists have been heading the publication for ten years, and are also editors of the scenography magazine «PLOT – Inszenierungen im Raum».

In a Zoom interview, we talked to the trade show experts about sustainability, collaboration and the viability of the physical trade show in the future


Last-minute changes have been a dime a dozen in the past two years: 4,000 trade shows were cancelled worldwide due to covid. To what extent will this experience influence the design of future trade shows? 
Sabine Marinescu (SM): I have to admit, I’m not sure! (laughs) We’re living in an age of crises and everyone in the business has to think about how trade shows can become more flexible. One question I’m asking, for example, is whether we shouldn’t always be thinking about hybrid shows in the future anyway. The planning that goes into organising a trade show can’t just be changed on a dime, and planners always require a certain amount of lead time. Still, everyone should be open-minded and mentally flexible enough to find last-minute solutions in case circumstances end up changing.  
Janina Poesch (JP): We should be thinking more modularly in general and recognise the fact that anything could happen anytime. We should be developing scalable solutions that can work under different circumstances. This demand for flexibility will also influence trade show design. And when you need to consider sustainability aspects on top of that, it’s clear that modularity feels more necessary than ever. Sustainability will take on an extremely significant role in the future, especially in trade show construction. 

As far as younger generations go, might it even be mandatory to make a change with regard to sustainability if trade shows are to have a future at all? 
SM: Yes, definitely!
JP: The question of whether you want to pursue a sustainability strategy is no longer pertinent. As a company you need to position yourself: not doing so also sends a message that your target group will judge. I don’t think anybody can get away with not thinking about sustainability anymore. The question becomes how you configure it: Do you rely on certifications? On the use of sustainable materials? On modularity? 
SM: That’s also becoming an important issue for recruiting. Often there are not enough young people who are truly invested in issues like sustainability. It’s not just a question of the image your company projects to others. I think it’s truly difficult for companies to find young professionals when they do not – like Janina said – position themselves and take a stance. 

Do you think trade shows will be catered to new audiences in future? Or will there continue to be professional and consumer trade shows as we know them today? 
JP: I think both consumer and professional trade shows will endure. But I can imagine different industry branches banding together and focusing on an overarching, socially relevant topic – especially in the area of consumer trade shows. This phenomenon can already be observed to some extent when an organiser appeals to exhibitors and the public across industries or disciplines by focusing on subjects like digitalisation, sustainability or design.  
SM: I also think there will be industries – especially in the digital sphere – that link up with existing trade shows rather than having their own industry-specific event. 
JP: My hypothesis is that trade shows will become smaller and more specialised; that there might not be any really big trade shows in the way we’re familiar with now, but smaller ones and more of them.  

So will exhibition grounds end up becoming obsolete as the centre of action in the long term?
SM: I do anticipate problems for the operators of exhibition grounds. Look at Messe Frankfurt: the IAA International Mobility Show is no longer being held there. Which means that all of a sudden its enormous halls are empty. I assume many trade show organisers will look for other spaces and move their event elsewhere. Like Janina said earlier, a trade show might be focused on something that requires a site that isn’t a traditional exhibition hall in order to host and present its content. Just as the trade fair is looking for other spaces, exhibition grounds are probably also looking for new ways to use their spaces. At the same time, there will definitely still be events that take place in exhibition halls. 
JP: The owners of large sites in particular will have to decide in the near future what they want to do with their halls. It’s really crazy to think about what was possible in the past two years and what is still possible: suddenly exhibition grounds morphed into vaccination centres or housing for refugees. Not just because trade shows have been called off, but because the concept of the trade show itself is changing and looking for new spaces. 

What could other trade show sites look like? Will they move downtown? There are lots of empty storefronts… 
JP: There’s a big trend of holding trade shows in urban areas. Though it’s not actually anything new: the Salone del Mobile in Milan and other design shows come to mind. Shows in urban areas exude a city feel and, by virtue of their location, can also attract a broader audience. All of a sudden there’s a festive mood in the middle of the city. Even when the exhibition grounds are in the outskirts of a city, when additional programme events take place in the city centre, there’s a feeling of cohesion because everyone is sharing this special (trade show/festive) moment. That is incredibly valuable and generates a lot of energy. By the same token, relocating to the city centre has an impact on the cities themselves, which can also benefit from it. But of course it only works out when the whole event is well done and the trade show stand in the exhibition hall is not identical to the one downtown. In trade show design, it is very important to cater to the specific context and location.  

Changing surroundings is probably going to require new skills as well. What skills are necessary for planning trade show stands in the future? 
JP: Regardless of the type of event: you need people who have a very good understanding of space and communication. I’m talking about both digital and physical space, and the communication that happens in both worlds. And then you also need people who know how to bring those two things together. It will definitely come down to a need for more people who understand how digital space can be presented effectively and designed in such a way that it aids communication, provides added value and enables more than just technical things. We are still in the beginning stages here. 
SM: Some people might have to get out of their comfort zone and learn to be okay with not always having all the experts under their own roof. Perhaps people involved in projects need to think more seriously about how to collaborate in networks or in partnerships with one another. Digital playing fields are rarely a core competence of the classic design studio as we know it. You can’t always have an expert for everything, especially when it comes to the digital sphere. 

Which of the trade show projects you’ve included in the current issue of «Trade Fair Design Annual» have most impressed you personally and why? 
JP: I especially liked the roadshows. As I see it, this format, which had fallen behind in recent years, is the perfect response to the pandemic: if the customer doesn’t go to the brand, the brand goes to the customer. It’s an exciting tool for brands to keep their target group engaged while concentrating communication in a small space. I hope this format will stay relevant.
SM: I thought the roadshows were really interesting, too. I also liked the project by the Ippolito Fleitz Group for OBJECT CARPET, which had originally been planned as a production for the Salone del Mobile.Milano 2020. When the event was cancelled, they turned the production into very artsy film. That might not always work because it’s obviously a super special approach and the product itself is no longer the most important thing. But I think the idea of switching to another format and developing something completely new was a very successful approach to the problem. 

JP: JP: The DIIIP showroom for Westag AG’s Getalit brand was also really impressive (editor’s note: see slider below): after a number of trade shows had been cancelled, the company decided to host an in-house trade show on their own premises. And it wasn’t just a half-hearted «Let’s open our doors and show people what’s here and that’s that» – no. It was ultra-professional and incredibly well designed. This approach opens up a new space for the trade show. I thought that was incredibly exciting. Actually, formats like this one are perfect because exhibitors have the right people on site and almost without any waste circulation. There might not be the same high figures, but when the contacts that are made lead to real-life business deals or new developments, you know you did the right thing after all…

What do you believe is absolutely necessary for physical trade shows to endure? What criteria need to be fulfilled?
SM: It may sound quite banal, but the most important thing is that they create a space that allows for encounters and exchanges. Trade shows must be a place where people can get into conversation with one another in a casual, inspiring way. And they shouldn’t be overly dependent on a fixed agenda, which is often what happens when they’re held virtually. 
JP: I think that meaningful conversations will become the most important thing in the future, not so much the products themselves. Exhibits can be presented, talked about and explained all year around. But when you’re at an actual physical trade show, you have the opportunity to have conversations about the values and stances of the company. Knowing this, it will force business owners to ask themselves beforehand: «What do I actually want to communicate?» And that will most likely cause many exhibitors to enter into unfamiliar thought processes. Because until now a company’s products had been playing the most important role in communication, less so its positions and visions. In the future, however, it will become increasingly important to take a stance and project that message outwards in order to continue communicating with your target group. More and more, the trade show is becoming one of a variety of possible brand touchpoints and it’s important to use that touchpoint in such a way that it fully exploits the advantages of the analogue (communication) space. And, aside from that, you absolutely need good wifi. 
SM: (laughs)
JP: Really! In the end we all need to be able to enter the digital space quickly – it seems like a little thing, but it’s really important! In order to be able to bolster the in-person conversation and follow up with the contact, you need to have instant access to a stable internet connection. Even when thousands of other trade show visitors are using the wifi. 
SM: This change is probably also quite challenging for the designers. I suppose they will have to take on the role of explaining to one exhibitor or another that the product is no longer the most important thing and to take them along on this journey.

Was it necessary for the trade show universe to be shaken up so the physical encounter could regain its worth and turn the live format back into a premium product? And so the return on investment of trade shows would be called radically into question in a positive way? 
JP: Absolutely! Actually, without judging it, the pandemic hit at exactly the right time. I think that even before covid you could feel it brewing: the trade show format was constantly under debate and had also been declared dead on many occasions. But the pandemic made it clear that trade shows are necessary for brand communication. Naturally, covid has left significant marks in the trade show industry and the effect it has had on the work and life of many trade show builders and agencies is depressing. At the same time, I’m glad about the disruption because, after spending a long time observing and doubting, I’ve become convinced that the trade show will not die: it will just change its face. The trade show is indestructible! I think recent times have made that resoundingly clear.
SM: That’s definitely true! Before covid, there was a lot of extravagance. A number of things have since fallen away. Which is always a consequence of a time of crisis: things that aren’t totally necessary disappear. And there were, I think, many things that weren’t necessary – so we now we’ll have a better idea of what they are. Especially in this industry. Hopefully! (laughs) Let’s talk about all this again in two or three years and see how things have developed. 

Gladly! We’re already looking forward to that conversation. Until then, we recommend reading the previous (and future) editions of «Trade Fair Design Annual», which can be ordered directly from the publisher av edition.


(Image blog overview: Janina Poesch, Sabine Marinescu © Quimey Servetti, Header image article: Getalit showroom, designed by DIIIP © Thorsten Arendt Fotografie)

Setting the stage

You’re planning to present at a trade show and want to have a stand that can draw a crowd? We’d be delighted to help you with your project. Our interior designer and scenographer Johannes Lang warmly invites anyone who’s interested to get in touch

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