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Digital transformation in the exhibition industry – what will it take to wake up this ‘sleeping beauty’?

Back in April this year, I created a report for Outsell Inc, trying to understand how we can wake up the exhibition industry’s ‘sleeping beauty’ – in other words, master the digital transformation era. As you well know, digital isn’t new to the sector. Topics such as “virtual trade show” or “virtual reality” made their way onto our strategy meeting agendas with great promise yet many of them left these very same agendas without making much of a dent or changing how visitors interact in a face-to-face environment. In fact, “digital” changed from a sexy buzzword in the year 2000 to a somewhat overused phrase just ten years later.

In the last decade, some industry players have invested a fairly decent amount in developing their digital approach with the aim of offering better products and services for exhibitors and visitors. However, a closer look at these investments shows that nearly all digital projects tend to focus purely on the exhibition itself and don’t venture any further than that. Also it often seems that the industry tries to unlock new digital revenue streams or services through a one-off investment without touching any internal workflows. Only a handful of digital projects have really tried to extend the event business beyond the show dates. For example, a tradeshow’s matchmaking system could be made to meet the business needs not just of actual exhibitors and visitors but to potential ones as well. We could even take it one step further and target the customers of these potential exhibitors, too. Not tapping into this extended market could be seen as a wasted opportunity, and illustrates why the industry needs to go through a digital transformation process. But what is really behind the phrase “digital transformation”? Just adding the word “transformation” to the word “digital” doesn’t make the topic sexy again.

In my report for Outsell Inc., I described digital transformation in the event industry as “the change to trade shows and conferences associated with the application of digital technology that enables it [the industry] to develop stronger core trade shows and conferences and to extend the business model beyond the event days.” This definition deliberately goes beyond the core show model and emphasises that one-off investments aren’t enough to strengthen the event industry’s core product.

Whilst other industries, such as music or travel, have dramatically changed the way they offer products to their customers over the years, the exhibition industry has stayed pretty much the same and is yet to go through this change. That said, we are already seeing steps towards true digital transformation in some areas. Richard Brook, Divisional Marketing Director of Informa’s Global Exhibitions Division says, “We’re merging the digital body language and onsite behaviour of our customers to design and deliver personalised communications. This strengthens our market maker approach where we provide extended value to the industries we serve by connecting buyers and sellers year-round, not just during the physical show. We don’t view digital transformation in isolation – it’s an intrinsic part of how create connections in new and more powerful ways”. Positive learnings such as these should encourage the industry to move more seriously towards a digital transformation.

The following framework outlines some key factors that could help a holistic digital transformation process:

– Level of digital transformation: Digital transformation can be planned and executed on different levels in an exhibition organisation – such as for a single event, a portfolio of events or for the company as a whole. It could be used to serve the event only or extend the business model to offer services and create customer touch points in-between events. It’s important to investigate how unified or disparate the databases are at these different levels, to ensure a digital transformation process can be carried out smoothly. The same goes for the nature of the data, and how industry-wide the data itself needs to be to ensure success.

– Nature of digital applications: All digital applications used by exhibition organisations are either for internal workflows only, are customer facing and/or are there to generate revenue. It’s important to analyse the nature of each digital application, including the consequences an old application might have for the customer product offer, to ensure positive digital transformation results.

– Definition of a digital business case: Digital projects need to serve a business case. It needs to be clear if a project aims to generate more or new revenue, if cost savings should be achieved, and/or if the company’s reputation depends on a project.

– Digital transformation as a change-management project: Too many digital projects emphasise and plan only the technical aspects of an application. At the end of the day, digital applications should make the life of our employees, our customers and our stakeholders easier and generate money. It is therefore immensely important to understand and plan a digital transformation process as a change-management project that ensures the workflows are tailored correctly and the employees are all on board and up to speed.

So will exhibition organisers wake up ‘sleeping beauty’ and master the digital transformation era? It’s a surefire way to increase the quality of shows, improve industry profitability, and extend the model beyond the show days. You’ve probably guessed it’s going to take more than a kiss for this to happen though! What’s needed is a well-planned digital transformation project, including defined strategic goals, a commercial plan and a clear understanding of the KPIs. So no kissing – sorry!

My report for Outsell Inc. provides a deeper insight into this framework. If you have any questions or are interested in the Outsell report, please get in touch.

Matthias Tesi Baur

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