Essential Guidance for Navigating the Current Trade Show Landscape

The ongoing reality of the COVID-19 pandemic has many trade show organizers and exhibitors scrambling to make their events a success while also prioritizing health and safety. We’ve put together a set of essential considerations and action steps to help you achieve both goals. As you navigate life science industry trade shows now and for the foreseeable future, here are the key issues to be aware of.

NOTE: These recommendations reflect known factors as of the publication of this article. Please defer to the latest CDC guidelines on travel and in-person activities as you determine your best trade show course of action.

1. Supply Chain Issues

Global supply chain breakdowns are causing delays in several key areas that impact trade show deliverables:

  • Booth Structures: Allow three to four weeks for receipt of hardware once your order has been placed.
  • Graphics: As of this writing, graphic production once artwork is received is taking approximately three weeks. For banner stands, allow two weeks.
  • Giveaways: Plan on a solid four months of lead time to help ensure the giveaways you prefer are available for order and receivable in time for the show.

How long will these delays last? If this article had come out in July of 2021, we would have been predicting a return to supply chain normalcy possibly as soon as 2022 Q1. With the unfolding impact of the delta variant (and others), it’s clear that it is premature to make such a prediction.

Action Step: Plan ahead for significantly more lead time on production.

2. Mandatory Vaccinations and Masks

Many public and private businesses and institutions are now requiring mandatory vaccination for employees and visitors, so keep an eye out for how your preferred trade show is handling this. For example, at the time of this writing, CHI (i.e., SCOPE) and The Conference Forum (i.e., DPharm) have mandatory vaccination requirements for all of their upcoming events.

Be aware that this is an evolving situation and be prepared with flexible solutions. It is possible that any event you sign up for could go from not requiring vaccination to mandatory vaccination, depending on the course of the pandemic. Also note that staying appraised of the latest rules and adjusting plans as needed to meet them will require an additional time commitment from your event planning team.

When it comes to masks, as has been the case throughout much of the pandemic, some venues require them and others don’t. Make sure your in-person team has plenty of disposable masks on hand for the duration of the event in case they are required, recommended, or preferred.

Action Step: Determine attendee/presenter/exhibitor vaccination rules for the specific event you’re considering and incorporate that into your decision-making process — and be prepared for a potential last-minute mandatory vaccination requirement. Assume some locations will require masks regardless of whether the conference center does (i.e., restaurants, hotels, meeting centers) and have an abundant supply on hand for your trade show staff.

3. Food and Beverage Changes

Depending on the location of the trade show, expect to see food and beverage serving precautions that are in line with local city and state rules and advisories. For instance, many hotels and convention centers are moving from a self-serve buffet line to server-based food service, even while maintaining the buffet format. This is intended to minimize the number of people directly interacting with the serving utensils and the food. Some events are also offering a to-go/bagged lunch option.

Confusingly, you will often see such precautions in place on one hand while self-serve areas (such as coffee refill stations) exist simultaneously on the other. Venues and food service companies are still navigating the nuances of food and beverage safety at large events.

Action Step: If you plan to offer food or beverages to your booth visitors, be sure your planning team stays on top of local health and safety requirements — right up until the event — as these are constantly being updated to account for the changing status of the pandemic.

4. Eliminating Touchpoints

Food and beverage service is certainly not the only place where you will see changes on the trade show floor in terms of eliminating touchpoints. Plan for no seat drops in sessions, possible elimination of lanyards, and use of digital business cards among other touchpoint reductions.

Action Step: Build out a touchless trade show strategy. For example, most people are much more comfortable with QR codes now that a separate app isn’t required to read them (smartphones read them automatically when pointing the camera at the code). Use this to your advantage to create touchless lead-retrieval opportunities. Get creative with digital giveaways, or perhaps an in-booth gift delivery chute!

Quick Tips for a COVID-Safe Booth

  • Sanitize frequently touched surfaces often, including in-booth tables and chairs
  • Make hand sanitizer available to booth staff and visitors
  • Email collateral directly rather than printing (great for lead gen!)
  • Come prepared with digital business cards
  • Use QR codes for lead gen, giveaways, and more

5. Client and Colleague Meeting Changes

One of the highlights of the trade show experience for exhibitors and attendees alike is the opportunity to connect with colleagues and client decision-makers. Be prepared for this to look different depending on the event location and local health and safety guidelines.

Another aspect that your event planning team will need to keep top of mind is that area restaurants or other previously used and enjoyed meeting places from past years may have specific mask or vaccination requirements — or in some cases, may unfortunately no longer be in business.

Action Step: Take extra research time to plan for successful client and colleague meetings, including staying appraised of venue open status and mask or vaccination requirements.

Are Hybrid Trade Shows Here to Stay?

In spite of pandemic and pre-pandemic challenges to the role of trade shows in life science company marketing, the format continues to be a mainstream lead generator, and we don’t see that changing anytime soon. Plus, with expansion of hybrid (virtual and in-person) events due to the pandemic, the opportunities for trade show lead generation have only expanded.

Almost everyone prefers in-person trade shows when safely possible, but the convenience of virtual leads us to predict that, yes, hybrid events are indeed here to stay. With that in mind, your marketing strategy should account for maximizing trade show lead gen both virtually and in person. Count on having an impeccably branded and engaging virtual booth regardless of your physical booth presence at your preferred shows.

Then, ensure your virtual and physical booth strategies complement each other. Market them together, telling your trade show audience there are two ways to engage with you. You can also tie your booths together through experiential elements like ensuring the virtual booth showcases a livestream of any in-person speakers, for example.

BONUS TIP: For those who have experimented with virtual booths and haven’t gotten as many leads as you’d like, take a closer look at how you are attending to your virtual booth traffic:

  • Are all visitors being proactively engaged with, or are you waiting for them to click through and request a meeting?
  • Is your virtual booth staff multitasking and attending to other things? This wouldn’t happen at an in-person booth!
  • Think of this digital experience more in terms of how you would interact in a physical space and consider increasing your team’s dedicated virtual booth focus.
  • Assign team members who thrive in the virtual space to committed, proactive engagement while tending to your virtual booth.

Trade Show Forecasting for 2021 Q4 and 2022 Q1?

In-person event forecasting for the coming quarter and beyond is a real challenge right now for organizers. Surveying exhibitors to gauge their interest, concerns, and comfort levels is always a good thing. However, with how quickly the pandemic shifted from crisis, to post-vaccination exuberance, to delta variant caution, you can see how challenging it is to assume a survey months before a planned event would accurately reflect exhibitor sentiment as the event approaches.

At the time of this writing, we are seeing that those who have announced in-person events are moving forward with them. As discussed above, though, be sure to stay on top of the ever-changing health and safety guidelines for the city and the show, as we have seen these change as close as three days prior to an event. Plan ahead for a variety of scenarios — which implicitly means a greater per-show time investment for your team.

To respond quickly and adeptly to the shifting trade show landscape, having a dedicated trade show support team is hugely beneficial. Not only does this free your internal team to provide high-level direction rather than be “stuck in the weeds” of all the details, but it also optimizes planning and presentation while maximizing results.

From a stunning virtual booth experience, to planning Zoom happy hours with alcohol delivery, to physical trade show booth designs that WOW your clients and colleagues, SCORR Marketing is your go-to partner for trade show success. We’re ready to help you make an impact at any event.

About the Author

Dee Fuehrer

Trade Show Director

Dee has led event efforts for companies in the health science industry for more than 20 years. She is indisputably the most experienced trade show guru in the drug development services industry. Dee has developed strategy, managed budgets, coordinated logistics and executed hundreds of exhibits and conferences around the world. She is also one of only a handful of trade show and event marketers to have earned the distinction of Certified Trade Show Marketer (CTSM), which is offered in affiliation with Northern Illinois University Outreach and denotes adherence to the highest standards. Dee serves on the Exhibitor Advisory Committee for the Drug Information Association (DIA), where her opinions and ideas give direction on how to improve future DIA events. The majority of Dee’s experience derives from her long-standing position as trade show and events manager at MDS Pharma Services and Cetero Research. Her skill in devising and directing comprehensive trade show platforms with an emphasis on qualified lead generation is second to none in the industry and makes SCORR the forerunner in trade show and event services.