Most experts agree that in-person events will start to return gradually in Q3-Q4 2021. We’ll have options in the near future. But for now, we’re in the virtual world of 2020.

For those planning or managing a marketing strategy in 2021, we wanted to provide a consensus of predictions and opinions on what the coming year’s events will look like.

Predictions for 2021

  1. We will see more virtual/hybrid events. Live shows that return as virtual shows will not be able to fully replicate the live demonstrations, networking, and product sampling that happen face-to-face.
  2. Show organizers will limit the number of attendees who can register for a live event or be on the show floor at any given time, including specific hours or days where they can enter the exhibit hall.
  3. As marketers think about hybrid (in-person and virtual) events, they’ll need to focus on creating an integrated experience. For the ambitious, hybrid events offer some of the value of in-person events along with scheduled virtual offerings, year-round availability, and an opportunity to engage leads into a tight content marketing strategy.
  4. What will in-person exhibit halls look like? Wider aisles; fewer booths with more space between structures; modifications to in-booth conference areas; masks; temperature checks at door; hand sanitizing stations; social distancing requirements; one-way directional signs; floor decals showing required spacing; optional giveaways (or no giveaways); digital-business-card apps; and food/beverage changes (individually wrapped portions, grab and go, bottled beverages, spaced tables).
  5. Companies will send fewer people to shows (i.e., companies will send representatives to fewer events, and they will send fewer representatives to the events they do attend).
  6. There will be a shift from national/international shows to smaller, regional alternatives. In-person events will return as smaller, more targeted versions of past events.
  7. Overall, we’ll see fewer events (in-person and virtual) until the broader trade show industry strongly rebounds.
  8. Outdoor venues will gain consideration as a possibility, but organizers will need to survey stakeholders before deciding to move outdoors.
  9. The availability of a COVID-19 vaccine will be a factor in the return to live events for the healthcare industry, but not necessarily in other industries (e.g., agronomy, construction). Some will choose not to take the vaccine, and it’s doubtful that organizers would embrace a policy as controversial as requiring proof of vaccination to gain entry. But if airlines require passengers to be vaccinated, this would change the approach.
  10. 2021 trade show budgets will start the year significantly lower than they were pre-COVID-19 2020, but they will begin to match early 2020 levels when live events resume.

Considerations for Your 2021 Trade Show Strategy

Participating in events can strengthen your competitive edge by enhancing your brand’s recognizability and credibility in a setting your target market finds attractive. We recommend mixing conference participation levels to include exhibiting, sponsoring, and speaking, while also attending conferences purely to network.

The following are questions to consider when determining if a virtual show is the right approach for you.

  1. What are the show’s start and end dates?
  2. What post-event data, or metrics, will be shared with exhibitors?
  3. How does the organizer plan to foster engagement and networking?
  4. How will the organizer promote the virtual trade show?
  5. Does the organizer provide a sneak peek, or demo, of the platform?
  6. If you have prepaid for an in-person event that has transitioned to virtual, can you roll a credit over to next year?
  7. Do you have leads from last year’s show to augment prepromotion?

If a virtual show sounds like it might make sense, you will next need to gauge your preferred level of participation to maximize ROI, which may range from conference sponsorship to simple attendance. Consider the extent to which the depth of your participation (e.g. event sponsor, booth presence, attendance) will best capitalize on the following opportunities vs. cost:

  • Sponsorship levels: Speaking opportunities; booth; pre- and post-conference mailing lists; registrations; web promotion; logo placement
  • Benefits: Branding; company description; product and service tags (search via product directory); videos and downloadable files to highlight products/services; showcase sponsored sessions; booth personnel (contact live, or schedule call, or via email); networking options — matchmaking, favorites list, send message, request meeting; advanced analytics — details about time spent visiting booth

Timing a Return to Trade Shows

If you’re like most marketers that entered 2020 with a healthy trade show budget, you may have shifted much of it to digital marketing or reallocated resources toward your inside sales/prospecting efforts. The return to in-person trade shows may be gradual, but the era of virtual and hybrid shows is here to stay.

Weaving the strands of a marketing strategy is particularly challenging when your clients, your market, and the entire world are grappling with unpredictability. But planning is everything — thinking through your 2021 tactics can help you clarify goals while giving you the awareness and insight to adapt when changes arise.

If you’re working on your trade show strategy, or if you have questions about what lies ahead, we should talk (virtually).

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.