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Switching to truly Agile Trade Show Management

How to prepare for changing trade show formats

Discussions about the future change in trade show formats have been taking place for years. But it has never been clear when this change would happen…until now. The time for change is here!

Shows such as Cebit, Baselworld and IAA have shown that there is growing customer appetite for new formats. These examples are also proof that when audiences demand a new show format, change can happen at an extremely fast pace – sometimes in less than one show cycle.

This calls for a totally new management style across the industry – a switch from an approach that focuses on simply maintaining and tweaking successful show formats, to truly agile show management. We need managers who are prepared to continually reinvent trade shows to ensure they match the fast-changing business landscape and demands from our target audiences. We also need to acknowledge that applying an agile management style in an industry based on annual show cycles can be a challenge in its own right. In other words, when we review our latest customer satisfaction surveys, it could already be too late to react.

Why are trade show formats changing?

It’s a good question, and the obvious answer would be the influence the digital era has had on the industry. But when we drill down to find more comprehensive examples of the impact of digitisation, the answer isn’t so clear. People usually point to the role of digital tools, yet we’ve seen that digital matchmaking may not be all that fulfilling, and that digital buyer and seller platforms don’t effectively replace the face-to-face interaction and momentum that trade shows can provide. This leads to the assumption that digitisation may not be the main catalyst for the change and growth rates we’ve witnessed over the last 15 years.

What aren’t we seeing?

So, if digital tools aren’t the main driving force behind the change to show formats across the industry, we need to ask ourselves: what aren’t we seeing? What did we fail to take into account to help us prepare for change? Why do flagship trade shows fall like old trees in the storm? Why has our management style not been agile enough to enhance and transform trade show formats to better suit our target groups, and to meet their demands and expectations for change? One answer might be that, although not all digital tools directly influence and change our industry, the user behaviours that many of these digital tools are built around are triggering this change.

The business world is different to what it was ten or even five years ago. In the past, we kept our private and professional lives separate, with minimal overlap. Bringing personal matters into your work life was frowned upon. Even browsing social media sites such as Facebook was discouraged, and many companies blocked people from browsing these sites at work.

This same attitude of not cross-pollinating the personal and the professional filtered into how we approached trade shows. Business took over for days or even weeks, and friends and family took a backseat for our shows teams, exhibitors and visitors.

This is no longer the case. The lines between our private and business lives have become blurred. They are now so intertwined, that it’s impossible to isolate one from the other. People can (and do!) carry out business, check their Instagram account, schedule meetings or get an alert about their friend’s next dinner party at any hour, no matter the time of day, or day of the week.

Trade shows that don’t cater to these new behaviours – the fusing of our private and professional lives – by providing high-speed Wi-Fi and breakout or working zones to accommodate our online and offline activities will inevitably be less favoured by our customers than trade shows that do.

What needs to change?

First and foremost, we need to train our teams in agile management methodologies. Statements such as “my trade show is different” or “I know my exhibitors inside and out” should have no place in strategy meetings, as they can prohibit change and be a barrier to deep customer-centred strategies.

Instead, when creating trade show strategies, we should be asking ourselves: what do we need to understand better? How have customer demands and expectations changed in the last six months? In many cases, current strategies are based on anecdotal knowledge gained by the show team over several years. And while this source of knowledge is extremely important, subjective opinions should not be the dominant or, as is sometimes the case, only source of information used as the basis of a strategy. To be able to react in an agile way to customer demands, show teams need to develop deep customer data strategies, methodologies to source this data and analytical tools to interpret and transform the data into something meaningful and useful, in order to make calculated decisions.

While it could be said that “we know what we know” and, often, that “we know what we don’t know”, it could also be said, far too often, that “we don’t know what we don’t know”. This means that our blind spot in the field of customer needs can be vast.

To fill the gaps in our knowledge and gain invaluable data, show teams should be asking the right types of questions: which show segments are growing, especially in biannual or moving shows? Which adjacent industry sectors not represented on the show floor are outperforming the growth of the show? Which Net Promoter Scores are divided by days, segments, seniority or age group, and how do we analyse all of these factors? How much time do exhibitors spend at booths, at show features or at the entry/registration point? How long does a visitor spend on gross and net business versus personal matters? What is the average organic upsell rate for stands, and what has the team managed to achieve across different segments, exhibitor groups and exhibitor nationalities? These are just some examples of the types of data your show team should source, study and use, in order to react and manage shows in a more agile way.

Look out for part two of this article, where we will consider how “old” show formats should be changed and how we can manage this change.

Discussions about the future change in trade show formats have been taking place for years. But it has never been clear when this change would happen … until now. The time for change is here!

In part one, we looked at the possible drivers for the change in trade show formats, as well as the knowledge and capabilities needed to prepare for this change. Now we will consider whether there is still life in “old” show formats.

Should we replace “old” show formats completely?

The immediate and simple answer to this question is a hard “no”. Change does not necessarily mean disregarding history and what has worked in the past. Over the years, teams have organised great trade shows, which is why so many brands in the trade show industry have been going strong for more than thirty years – and still have growing visitor and exhibitor numbers, year-on-year.

While we shouldn’t be looking to replace the old trade show model in its entirety, we do need to substantially develop and enhance it. Exhibitors will continue to join trade shows, and especially those that not only give them a great return, but that enhance their customer relations and offer the chance to observe the industry, specifically their competitors. Yet, while these drivers for ongoing participation will remain, exhibitors and visitors crave information. They want to be educated, to meet and network with peers and to join an industry marketplace that boosts the bottom line for the coming month. In fact, you could say that our industry is not entirely changing, we are just in the middle of a deeper evolutionary curve.

How do we manage this evolutionary curve of change?

Although it’s easy to say that show teams need to be more agile, such change won’t be easy to achieve. Asking for teams to fundamentally change the way they have worked for years will be a challenging exercise, with a high chance of failure. Nevertheless, referring to part one of the article, the decline of some major shows should be the wake-up call for us to realise that we have no choice – we need to change, and we need to change now!

The following steps can help in the change process.

  • Team buy-in: get your team on board by letting them know that inevitable change is coming, and that they are a pivotal part of this change process, due to their wealth of invaluable knowledge on the industry and your customers.
  • Define the data you need to gather and analyse in order to really understand future demands. In other words, “discover your unknown unknowns”, leave your comfort zone and challenge what you currently know. This is a difficult exercise and help from experts is highly recommended.
  • Define an analytical process that can transform data into meaningful intelligence for strategic decisions.
  • Define a strategy process that involves the entire team, and which is based on both anecdotal and analysed knowledge.
  • Make sure your teams are equipped with data analysis, feature creation and modern marketing skills.

Commercialise your sales, if you feel you have money left on the table.

Talk to us:

Over the last five years, we have helped trade show organisers, portfolios and show teams undergo holistic change processes, and have supported in areas such as developing content and feature strategies, stimulating sales growth and re-bookings, and embedding new strategy processes.

Feel free to talk to us regarding any of the insights in this article, or if you are seeking support with developing any aspect of your trade show, processes and teams.

Matthias Tesi Baur

MBB-Consulting Group is a consultancy specialised in the international exhibitions, events, services and e-business sector. The agency was founded by Matthias Tesi Baur. Matthias brings over 18 years of international event experience together with proven results in building shows and leading teams in more than 12 countries (USA, UK, Brazil, Germany, France, Russia, Turkey, India, China, Indonesia and more) in both global corporate and matrix organisations.

MBB-Consulting Group specialises in:

  • Company, portfolio and show strategy
  • Approaches to mergers and acquisitions
  • Event sales and rebooking concepts
  • Strategies to boost NPS scoring
  • Location-based pricing strategies
  • Commercial due diligence and market research
  • Digital and e-business concepts
  • Education and training

For more information on MBB-Consulting Group, visit

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