I remember my first trade show at the age of 18 years old. Armed with the idea of opening a skate shop in Santa Rosa we made the eight-hour drive to Long Beach with no idea what to expect or even how we would get in the show. When we arrived, it felt more like we were about to attend a festival rather than a place business was going to be done. We joined the hundreds of people in line to register with no credentials to get in. With a little help from someone we met in line we made it in, and our minds were blown. ASR was the mecca of everything surf, skate, and streetwear. And for the next decade going to ASR was the highlight of doing business in action sports. For those lucky enough to own surf, skate and, snowboard shops attending SIA was the best excuse to go to Las Vegas as any.
I must admit that when ASR ended in 2010, I was crushed. Not just because no more Reef girls and Black Flys booth, I was afraid that I would lose the opportunity to use the show as a place to break bread, slap palms, and spend time with people whom I had grown to love and respect in business. ASR was gone but we still had SIA (now outdoor retailer) and if you were on the east coast there was Surf Expo. And after attending both Surf Expo and Outdoor Retailer this month I can’t help but feel like things are starting to look a lot like the final days of ASR due to the recession. Yet with business rebounding out of Covid why are brands and retailer staying away?
Is the fear of Covid to blame or is it just the scapegoat? Could the real enemies of the trade show be B2B ordering platforms, Zoom, emails, and technology in general? I do believe the Covid Era is responsible for the leapfrog for the technologies we are using today to connect with people and conduct business. So, for those of us who want to see the trade show live forever are we just Luddites (google it) fighting an inevitable change?
In the early 2000’s the only way for a buyer to see everything a brand had to offer the trade show was the place to go. Brands could display their entire rainbow lines for buyers to touch and feel each item. Now with solutions like NuOrder or Brandboom a buyer can see all the colors of a line. They may lose the touch and feel by using such solutions. But when a brand rep comes in with one of the many colors a style it can allow a buyer to feel the product and see all the colors online. You can see how this would allow a buyer to find an excuse to not attend a show but B2B platforms don’t allow for building relationships with brands. And as shows use to be where you could pop in a booth and talk to a sale manager, VP of marketing, or even the CEO, B2B platforms don’t allow you to connect with people. The Action Sport industry is an industry built on relationships so B2B platforms can’t be to blame for the attack on trade shows.
Before Covid I could count on one hand how many times I did a web conference call, and I am sure it was not through Zoom and there was no reason for it. I would rather spend an hour in a car driving to meet up with someone than use a web cam. In March of 2020 things changed. Not more that two months after attending Outdoor retailer with thousands of people connecting and doing business, I had a paid Zoom account and was spending most of my day looking at a screen. I used Zoom not only for work it was also how I could enjoy a beer with a friend and the virtual happy hour was now part of regular life. Sales reps were doing line showing via zoom, corporate teams were able to collaborate from their living rooms. I remember being nervous about meeting a new person via Zoom. What would they think of the messy closet in the background? Now it is almost easier to use Zoom to connect with people than making the effort to travel, especially by plane. I still think Zoom does not replace face to face meetings and though it can help save money and time it is no replacement for trade shows. Covid may have fast forwarded the use of Zoom, but I don’t think this is the reason trade shows are looking the way they are right now.
2020/2021 trade shows got the 1-2-3 punch from Covid, technology, and supply chain issues that made it more difficult to bring people out. My hope for 2022 is that it is the year of healing. We have new solutions to bring us together to do business faster and from further away with new ways to connect with each other. Trade Shows just like any business will have to adapt to the changing ways business is being done. And with some of the new solutions it looks like the trade shows are embracing change with and finding ways to connect brands to retailers.