At most trade shows, the choice is made for you. Either it’s a live event, so you purchase physical booth space, or it’s a virtual event, so you buy a digital booth ticket. But what about hybrid trade shows? When you have the option of exhibiting live or virtually, what do you choose?
Pros and Cons of Physical Exhibits
There’s been a lot of talk among event marketers about the benefits of virtual trade shows in the last couple of years. And they definitely do have their benefits. But live trade shows have always had strengths, too, and what made them beneficial in the past is still applicable in 2022. When exhibiting at a hybrid trade show, there are several great reasons to consider a live booth.
Pro: Face-to-face Interactions
In-person networking has always been an integral part of live trade shows. It remains one of the greatest benefits of exhibiting at live events. For most people, the opportunity to build and strengthen professional relationships is a key reason to attend live, in-person events. Virtual events do also offer networking opportunities. However, many trade show attendees still consider face-to-face networking to be more effective and more enjoyable.
This is partly because face-to-face is what we’re used to. As trade show attendees become more accustomed to virtual networking, and to virtual events in general, we may see a shift in opinion and preferences.
Pro: High engagement levels
Engagement is another core benefit of live events, and one where virtual events struggle to keep up. People stay more engaged at live trade shows, partly because they’re more physically active. Another reason is the absence of non-show-related distractions. Once you’re at the show, the show is all there is!
This is ideal for the show’s hosts and organizers. For individual exhibitors, it’s more of a toss-up. Trade show attendees have their attention pulled in multiple different directions at once. That’s why usually the big showy booths get the most visitors. Smaller companies may find it hard to compete for attention and engagement.
Pro: Physical Interaction
Virtual trade shows can do much to improve engagement and provide networking opportunities. However, there’s one thing they can’t yet replicate: the ability to physically interact with products. Technology such as augmented and virtual reality can give an approximation, but it’s not the real thing. If your ability to sell a product depends on people interacting with that product, there’s no substitute for a live show.
Pro: Sheer Spectacle
Virtual environments can be impressive, and there’s definitely an awe factor walking into a well-planned virtual exhibit hall. However, the spectacle of a creatively-designed physical booth made by real event pros is generally more buzzworthy. That’s because it’s combined with the added bonus of in-person engagement. When attendees explore a live booth, they do it alongside other people. This provides a sense of camaraderie that makes it a more emotive and memorable experience.
Con: Barriers to Attendance
Live trade shows have been the status quo for decades. They’re widely regarded as beneficial by those who attend them. In fact, the chief disadvantage of live shows is that not everyone who wants to can attend them. There are significant barriers that prevent many people and companies from attending. The main barriers include:
- Lack of budget: Exhibiting at shows and sending attendees can be expensive, especially for smaller organizations and start-ups.
- Location: Sometimes it’s a case of “right show, wrong place,” due to the cost or inconvenience of travel and accommodation.
- Opportunity costs: Organizing and staffing a live booth takes time as well as money. As with the budget issue, this is something that’s more likely to affect smaller companies.
Pros and Cons of Virtual Booths
Virtual events may be relatively new on the scene, but they’ve forced the entire events industry to consider the advantages of going virtual. While the virtual event experience is very different from the live experience, there are some genuine advantages to choosing the virtual option at hybrid events.
Pro: More Affordable to Attend
One of the most significant benefits of virtual trade shows—especially for smaller companies—is that the cost of exhibiting is much lower. And it’s not just because there’s no need to buy or rent a trade show booth. It’s also because there’s no need to pay for travel and accommodation, shipping, or any other associated expenses.
Not all expenses can be avoided, of course. A digital booth needs to be filled with content just like a live one, which means sourcing content in-house or hiring a digital content team. And there are still registration fees to pay; however, digital booth space does typically cost less than a physical booth space.
Pro: Extend Your Audience Reach
Just as virtual shows are more affordable for exhibitors, they’re often more affordable for virtual attendees too. People who can’t afford to attend the live show may head online instead. This gives you the chance to connect with an entirely new audience you might not otherwise get to interact with.
Pro: Improved Data Collection and Lead Generation
When your trade show booth exists in a digital space, it gives you significant potential for gathering both data and leads. Why? Because every attendee who visits your booth generates their own unique digital trail. This data can show you exactly what content booth visitors view and for how long. You can see who’s watching your product demos or downloading sales information or product specs sheets. You can combine that with demographic data to get a detailed list of potential leads, all with a few mouse clicks. Different virtual event platforms have different data collection options, but generally you can expect to have a lot more data options in a virtual platform than in a live event.
Con: Reliance on Technology
The flip side of the benefits of digital technology is that you’re reliant on that technology for your success. And that means that technical issues can present a major problem if you’re not prepared for them. What if you suddenly find out, on show day, that your video files are in the wrong format? What if the virtual platform experiences an outage? What if high attendance numbers clog the virtual streaming? Event tech is important even in a live event, but for virtual trade shows, staying on top of the right event technology for your platform and booth is critical. Likewise, it’s wise to have a couple contingency plans ready for tech issues that might arise.
Con: Working Across Time Zones
The live portion of a hybrid event happens in front of a single audience, all in the same geography for the moment. That’s both the strength and weakness of a live event. A virtual events attendee could be anywhere. You will have to think through which time zones you want to optimize for and do your best to create an accommodating schedule for your attendees across the country, and even around the world. If you plan a booth with no live content, this might not be an issue, but if you plan on interacting with booth visitors, you’ll need to think through these issues. For example, what hours will you make live chat available? Are you willing to have after midnight live chats to talk about your product?
Should You Exhibit Live or Virtually?
Both physical and virtual trade show booths have unique benefits, as well as drawbacks. And overall, they’re both good options, with the potential to support a successful exhibit. But at a hybrid trade show, you can go with either option, so which should you choose, and why?
When to Go With a Live Booth
Networking: Live trade show booths cannot be surpassed when it comes to making connections. If your sales model relies strongly on networking and building professional relationships, the live booth is better-equipped to support these goals.
Publicity: Live booths are also great if you want to generate publicity or brand awareness with an impressive spectacle. The booths of industry leaders are always a hit at live trade shows, thanks to big budgets and talented creative teams. If you have a big budget, you’ll generally create more buzz with a live booth.
Interaction: If it’s important that people are able to physically interact with your product, then a live booth is preferable to a virtual one.
When to Choose a Virtual Booth
Cost-saving and convenience: If you don’t have the budget for a live booth, then a virtual booth is a viable option. It’s also a good choice if time or location constraints make it hard to attend a live trade show.
Reach a new audience: Buying virtual booth space can be an effective way to target a new demographic. Some virtual trade show attendees avoid live shows due to budgets and other constraints. Those that attend virtually are not always the same audience segment as those attending in-person. Targeting this format may win you a whole new audience.
Live or Virtual: The Choice is Yours at a Hybrid Trade Show
Up until recently, hybrid trade shows have been mostly-live shows, with a little online content tacked on. But the new breed of hybrid formats is more likely to have a robust online presence, with plenty of digital content and online exhibitors. For companies that attend hybrid trade shows, it’s important to consider your event goals and the potential benefits of each kind of booth. That way, you’ll be ready to choose the right event strategy for your company.