December 06, 2023
By Mike Fletcher

When the coronavirus pandemic struck in early 2020, the impact on the corrugated packaging sector was two-fold. Companies producing packaging for luxury goods saw orders evaporate, whereas those producing corrugated packaging for critical supplies such as e-commerce, pharmaceuticals, food and drink, and the like, were running at around 120% capacity and required additional machinery to fulfill the demand, and fast!

The worldwide postponement of major in-person trade fairs such as Drupa and Interpack left a gaping void for packaging professionals desperate to place orders and an industry in dire need of business support. To fill the void, a trade magazine publisher called Brunton Business Publications stepped forward and suggested a virtual trade show.

The resulting virtual exhibition for the global packaging industry was called ConneXion and ran for the whole month of November 2020.

Exhibitors could buy 3D rendered booths and showcase their products via live demos, downloadable collateral, and video calls. Moreover, visitor avatars could interact with other avatars and booths, swap business cards, access pre-recorded conference content, and even change their bespoke look and attire before walking the show floor.

The results were staggering. Almost 6,000 virtual business cards were exchanged (1,618 on an opening day), over 7,000 conversations occurred via the chat functionality and registered visitors attended the show over 6,000 times. The average visitor dwell time was around 47 minutes.

ConneXion 2020 was so successful it won Best Virtual Exhibition at the Digital Event Awards that year. The reason for its success was simple - it brought together an industry sector that desperately needed all the positive elements that face-to-face exhibiting brings at a time when in-person trade shows just weren’t possible.

Now that exhibitions are largely back up and running again, organizers are looking at success stories like ConneXion and wondering where the digital transformation of trade show marketing fits within the pre-pandemic in-person model.

However, if you look further into history, you’ll see that the demand for virtual exhibition booths first peaked around the recession of the late 2000s. Companies that needed to budget more carefully saw virtual exhibiting as a cost-effective way to stay visible and host meetings without having associated trade show costs such as transportation, stand-build, print, and staffing fees.

A virtual booth also gave them something to PR and promote - a unique selling point that drove curious visitors to check out their online offer.

The cost savings and novelty factor of exhibiting virtually are as relevant today as they were 22 years ago. The major difference now is that with two years of pandemic experience in staging virtual events under their belts, organizers can offer exhibitors and sponsors more sophisticated options for exhibiting virtually, plus more granular analytics and data on their online audience.

The benefits for organizers

Exhibitions are incredibly complex events to stage with a wide range of factors that need to be considered. Once objectives and a strategy have been set, running a live exhibition requires a dedicated team of planners that can:

  • Source a suitably sized and equipped event space.
  • Market and sell exhibition floor space and speaking opportunities to relevant companies.
  • Provide marketing resources for exhibitors to use in their campaigns.
  • Book keynote and speaking opportunities that will resonate with the target audience.
  • Act as liaison between numerous parties that could include exhibitors, stand builders, health and safety, food and beverage, venue teams, ticketing, entertainment, and more.
  • Promote and sell tickets to conference visitors.

Many of these tasks can be simplified when organizing a virtual trade show. There’s no need for a venue – only a platform with sufficient scope to scale and meet anticipated demand.

Virtual floorspace may be easier to sell to would-be exhibitors with a vastly reduced outlay in return for potentially greater data-led insights into the audience.

Additional speaker slots may also help to entice more exhibitors, given the potential for more virtual break-out rooms and conference streams than a physical venue might be able to accommodate.

The need for third-party suppliers including AV, food, and beverage, and so on is also removed, simplifying the planning process and allowing planners to focus much more on marketing to exhibitors and attendees. While those exhibitors and attendees can now much more easily attend from every part of the world, without the carbon footprint associated with long-haul flights.

The benefits for the attendee

The most important people at any exhibition are the attendees, and the same remains true in a virtual exhibition setting. With that in mind, virtual exhibitions must demonstrate tangible benefits to the attendee. Thankfully there’s a range of them, which include:

Reduced ticket costs – those exhibitions that do charge attendees are often able to pass on the savings to them directly, making attendance that much easier.

Removing the need to travel – the current appetite for and ability to travel is a huge post-pandemic factor that can be instantly eliminated in the virtual world.

Providing a more customized experience – organizers and exhibitors can tailor the event experience in a much more individual way, so attendees benefit from an experience that feels like it has been built with them in mind.

Enabling anonymity – in addition to being more tailored, some attendees will prefer the more anonymous nature of being at a virtual event. While turning off your camera may not be actively encouraged, it’s an option, and attendees won’t have to run the gauntlet of gangways between physical exhibition stands (and the salespeople trying to grab your attention) to get to where you’re going.

No lines for food, coffee, or the bathroom – in other words, you can enjoy the exhibition from the comfort of your home or office (or home office). 

The benefits for exhibitors

In addition to physical stand design and build savings, companies looking to embrace the opportunity to exhibit at a virtual event can benefit in several other ways.

While the face-to-face interaction that a live exhibition provides may be unparalleled in terms of the opportunity to build bonds with your audience, approaching a virtual event in the right way and delivering your virtual presence with confidence can go a long way to bridging that gap.

Virtual exhibitions allow you to get really creative with the way you present yourself (see what Campari Group did in the example below). You’re able to prepare a range of digital materials to have on hand, ready to engage with each of your virtual visitors to present your ideas, products, or services in a way that suits them.

You may also find that some attendees come out of their shells a little more in a virtual setting. The physical barrier of the screen can encourage some to speak up and engage when they may have been less inclined to do so face-to-face. This is especially true of younger audiences, in line with the shift seen elsewhere in the world; a preference to move away from direct conversation in favor of instant messaging and live chat.

Offering a range of communication options during your presentations or speaking slots will also improve upon this and you may find that audience interaction for elements such as live polls increases.

This in turn can both enhance your presentation at the time and provide additional valuable feedback and direction.

Using pre-exhibition communication, you could even empower attendees by inviting them to build out a profile with their preferences, allowing you to then tailor your sessions accordingly. And with a virtual exhibition, you’ll be able to accommodate any number of these in separate virtual break-out rooms.

Getting creative with virtual exhibition booths

Campari Group adopted a radical approach to delivering a virtual brand experience as part of The Moodie Davitt Virtual Travel Retail Expo 2020. 

The inaugural Moodie Davitt Virtual Travel Retail Expo ran as a replacement for the cancellation of the annual travel retail conference. It ran online from 12-16 October 2020 and brought together over 4,000 retailers and brand owners across categories such as Wine & Spirits, Confectionary, and Beauty & Fashion.

Instead of a conventional booth, Campari's creative solution was to land a virtual private jet in the middle of the exhibition hall and invite every show visitor to enjoy a pre-flight cocktail in the Campari Group Departures Lounge, before embarking on a round-the-world brand experience with flights to Venice, Kentucky, and Speyside to discover three spirit brands and their origins.

Onboarding the private jet, visitors selected a drink that corresponded with their choice of destination before ‘fastening seatbelts’ and being transported to Venice, Italy, Lawrenceburg, Kentucky or Speyside, Scotland to visit the homes of Aperol, Wild Turkey, and The Glen Grant.

After exploring each 360-degree destination environment, complete with interactive touch-points delving deeper into each brand, visitors had their virtual passport stamped and could either travel on to the next destination or return to the lounge and speak with a brand representative. 

The Fly Campari Group experience was the number one most visited stand at The Moodie Davitt Virtual Travel Retail Expo 2020, across all exhibitor categories. The average number of visits per competitor stand totaled 1,530, whereas Fly Campari Group received 2,257 visits (47% higher than the average) – with an average dwell time of three minutes and 10 seconds.

“No one expected us to decide against a traditional exhibition stand, let alone replace it with a virtual private jet experience and whisk customers away to three different brand destinations,” Campari Group Global Travel Retail marketing director, Biancamaria Sansone says. “The impact was staggering and we were able to demonstrate new innovative ways to connect with a more digitally aware customer base whilst maintaining a true brand tone of voice.”

How do you create a virtual trade show?

Planning a virtual trade show involves finding the right event software that can support your goals, communicating with exhibitors, and being ready for anything.

At the top of the list is making sure you offer exhibitors everything they need to make their participation in your event worthwhile. That means appointments, booths, branding, opportunities to engage with attendees, and of course, lead capture.

Your needs will vary depending on the size of your event. When looking at providers for trade show solutions, think holistically. Is there an event tech platform out there that offers virtual solutions to power your events as well as your trade shows?

Building a total event program, one that uses the right event tech to support your virtual, in-person, and hybrid events, will allow you to track results on the same platform, making success easier to define and prove.

Five features to incorporate at virtual trade shows

It goes without saying that event technology is the key to virtual trade show success. As you plan, make sure to include the following features when creating your virtual exhibition. Think about aspects of in-person trade shows and apply them where you can. 

Sponsor and exhibitor lists

Have dedicated areas within your virtual event for your sponsor and exhibitor lists that are easily searchable for attendees. They can be organized by sponsorship level to give prominent placement to your most valuable sponsors and exhibitors.

Virtual exhibitor booths

Virtual booths with video conferencing allow exhibitors to display branding, company details, and the ability to meet face-to-face with interested attendees.

Virtual meeting rooms

Attendees can meet with exhibitors right from their booth through video conferencing or live chat. You can also allow attendees and exhibitors to request and pre-schedule appointments with one another.

Inbound exhibitor leads

Help exhibitors drive inbound leads by letting attendees submit their interests and instantly share their contact information directly with exhibitors.

Exhibitor documents

Help attendees to learn about exhibitors by allowing them to upload relevant content right to their exhibitor booths, such as downloadable brochures, videos, and links.

Sponsorship opportunities for trade shows

Sponsorships are a key revenue driver for many events and most of the opportunities available tie back to your virtual trade show. Your sponsor offers will appeal to those companies involved in the trade show or looking to connect with attendees. To maintain or grow your sponsorship dollars each year, you need to continually prove the value of the investment. That means maximizing sponsor exposure and offering new and creative sponsorship opportunities.

This is even more important for virtual events, where many of the more traditional sponsorship ideas may not apply. Event technology has opened the door for organizations to get the most out of this channel – and be able to collect the data to prove the value of their sponsorships.

What to offer sponsors and exhibitors

Email Communications: Allow sponsors to include their logos in your various email sends, like invites, confirmations, reminders, or even dedicated sponsor emails

Registration: Highlight sponsors during registration with dedicated survey questions to gauge interest or draw attention to sponsored sessions

Featured Sponsors: Maximize exhibitor and sponsor visibility by featuring them on high traffic areas of your virtual event

Sponsored Sessions: Allow partners to sponsor sessions at your event to give them exposure to target groups of attendees. You can indicate sponsored sessions on your event agenda and which sessions are sponsored and send lead information from session participants to your partners after the event.

Sponsored Video Ads: As attendees log in to a session and wait for it to start, allow sponsors to play a commercial during this time to showcase their company and offerings.

As the event landscape keeps on evolving and hybrid solutions connect physical exhibitions with online elements such as on-demand content programs, the lines between in-person and digital will continue to blur.

Planning to incorporate virtual trade show elements into your total event program will give you both the flexibility to offer content and connections to a wider audience and the reassurance that however customer behavior trends respond to post-pandemic life, you’ll have the marketing tools in place to adapt.

Building on existing tools, Cvent has released many new features and products that will make your virtual exhibition experience more engaging for attendees, while driving ROI for exhibitors. Learn more about Cvent’s trade show platform here.


Mike Fletcher

Mike Fletcher

Mike has been writing about the meetings and events industry for almost 20 years as a former editor at Haymarket Media Group, and then as a freelance writer and editor.

He currently runs his own content agency, Slippy Media, catering for a wide-range of client requirements, including social strategy, long-form, event photography, event videography, reports, blogs and ghost-written material.

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