Exhibition planning ahead for 2021 and beyond

by Editorial Team
9 minutes read

For companies which had their plans laid out for participation in business events such as exhibitions, 2020 turned out to be a disappointment as most shows were either postponed or cancelled altogether while organisers studied the COVID19- situation. The year was laid to waste by the COVID-19 pandemic but both organisers and exhibitors cannot count their losses forever.

As the year rolls towards its end, it is time to plan ahead for the forthcoming year. Some exhibitors may think that given that the pandemic is still to be over they do not need to plan for exhibition participation in the new year. As the world relaxes lockdown regulations in response to improving pandemic situations and the pressing need to keep their economies ticking, the role of exhibitions in the economic turnaround cannot be overemphasised. This means that exhibitions in both in-person and virtual formats will continue to play a major role in the marketing of goods and services at domestic and global levels.

Instead of sitting, folding hands and wondering whether or not the world will go back to the preCOVID-19 business events era, exhibitors need to start preparing for 2021. One will ask: how can we prepare for what we do not know? True, one may not know with certainty what the new year will bring but it is important to prepare for it. Here are some areas which exhibitors need to consider as they prepare for the 2021 exhibition year and beyond;

  • Establish how organisers are planning ahead

Even before the pandemic, the organiser’s office has always been the first port of call for exhibitors especially first time ones. In Zimbabwe, most exhibitions were not held due to the lockdown which stressed social distancing, very limited travel and an attendance limit of 50 people for face to face gatherings. This means that most organisers are planning how they intend to hold their shows in 2021. During the first quarter of the year they will publicise their plans for the year but an exhibitor who knocks on their doors now, establishes their plans and prepares accordingly is in a better position than the one who will wait to hear from say the ZITF Company in February.

  • Learn about virtual and hybrid shows

Even if the coronavirus pandemic were to be declared to be under control globally today, business events will never be the same again. The virtual meetings and exhibitions which hogged the limelight during the year are not going to vanish with the pandemic. In the short term, they are going to be the in thing as people take precautions against the disease. A wasted year means people will find it difficult to afford attending shows so the virtual format will come in handy. In the long term, virtual events are going to complement face to face events. This will enable people who may not be able to attend the events in-person to participate, thereby increasing attendee numbers. The scenario would enable both sides to meet their objectives.

In view of this, exhibitors need to get a handle on the mechanics of virtual events so that they can leverage them to meet their corporate and marketing objectives. They need to know the basics of the format. They should know their advantages and disadvantages and how they can make the most of them to achieve their objectives.

  • Learn how to choose exhibits and how to exhibits

The advent of the virtual exhibition places a need on exhibitors to familiarise themselves with how to exhibit on virtual platforms. It also means that exhibitors need to understand how visitors will view their exhibits and interact with their online stand staff. Virtual exhibitions are new terrain for most exhibition stakeholders. This means that organisers may not have all the answers as they too will also be learning. IT specialists may come in handy in assisting the two stakeholders to understand how virtual shows work. The internet teems with blog and video material on the subject so exhibitors need to invest resources to fully appreciate the virtual exhibition landscape.

Still talking of exhibits, some exhibitors had already chosen their exhibits for the 2020 exhibition season in line with their corporate and marketing objectives. Will they just need to take these to next year’s shows as is? No. This is because, given the negative impact of the pandemic on businesses, circumstances have changed for most of them. If a fast-moving consumer brands (FMCBs) manufacturer had prepared to introduce a new brand during the ZITF in April this year, they are most likely to have introduced it without the show. The bottom line is that exhibitors need to re-select their exhibits in line with new circumstances, new objectives and new shows. Where the 2020 main objective could have been to entrench a brand’s market position, next year’s major objective would be reconnecting with the market after nearly a year of lockdown.

  • Budgeting

Like any project, exhibitors will need to fully budget for their exhibition participation. Given that most shows are likely to embrace a virtual component and twin it with face to face, it means that expenses will go beyond the usual budget items. This is the reason why it is important for exhibitors to engage their organisers and establish what the coming year’s shows will involve so that nothing will be left to chance. Organisers are not just event space merchants, they are also expert event planners that exhibitors can rely on for insights in participation planning. Some events will offer the option of either the face to face or virtual format. Virtual is touted as generally more affordable because it excludes costs such as stand purchase or rental, travel and accommodation and transportation of exhibits but exhibitors should not take anyone’s word for it. They should get a full appreciation of all the costs involved in each format for each show, choose appropriately and budget accordingly.

  • Exhibition timelines

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, most exhibitors knew that the ZITF opened the exhibitions calendar in April, provincial shows ran from around June to September while the Zimbabwe Agricultural Show was held in August annually. Given that some shows were not held this year, there is a likelihood that some may be held earlier next year. For example, some provincial shows are unlikely to be held this year. This coupled with the fact that provincial shows have been working on synchronising their events with the Zimbabwe Agricultural Show so that by August they will all be done so that the Harare show will be the national culmination of the district and provincial events.

The bottom line is that exhibitors should not take the issue of exhibition dates and timelines for granted. They should be informed of the timelines of the shows they are interested in participating in. Establishing timelines also assists in ensuring that they have enough time to put together the requisite financial resources to participate in certain exhibitions.

  • Safety measures

In Europe and Asia some countries are opening up their countries and with some already permitting exhibitions despite the fact that no World Health Organisation-endorsed vaccine has been confirmed yet. Indications are that even if one were to be found now only one-tenth of the world’s population would have been vaccinated by the end of 2021. These scenarios point to the reality that the world will have to learn to co-exist with the virus for some time.

This means that when exhibitions re-open, it will not be business as per the pre-COVID-19 era. Going forward, the government will insist on the strict observance of COVID-19 measures such as masking up, social distancing, sanitisation and disinfection of venues for the safety of all stakeholders. Exhibitors need to find out from exhibition organisers who would meet the costs of ensuring that the exhibitions which they wish to participate in are COVID-19-safe. Will organisers factor this key cost of the event in the participation fees or exhibitors will have to incur an extra cost to ensure the safety of the event? Will the two parties share the costs of the safety of the event?  The exhibitors need to establish from the organisers as soon as now to allow them time to properly plan for this.

  • Stand staff selection

Post-2020 exhibitions will make more demands on exhibitors in terms of stand staff selection. The exhibition stand staff of the past needed to have a good attitude towards people, to be knowledgeable about their company, its products/services as well as their industry. They needed to be great at picking potential leads from ordinary visitors as well to capture the leads without having to spend ages with each visitor to achieve this.

Participating in an exhibition in 2021 or 2022 means that some of the exhibitors’ staff members would still be apprehensive about manning a standing in circumstances where high numbers of people may increase the chances of one contracting the dreaded virus. A staff member may have been a star stand staffer in the past but he or she may be unwilling to man the stand under the new circumstances. The new normal of hybrid events means that exhibitors will need to have teams for the face to face show and the online component of the event. As exhibitors get a handle of the mechanics of virtual shows, they should use the opportunity to learn about the criteria they can use in picking staffers for the virtual arm of the exhibition.

  • The bigger picture

As exhibitors plan for 2021 and beyond, they should think about the bigger picture. They should not just restrict themselves to the traditional shows which they have always participated in. Indications are that virtual shows are likely to appeal to consumer show visitors more than to trade shows. This means that exhibitors would have to be flexible in line with the new normal for as long as this enables them to meet their objectives. This, however, does not mean participating in something they don’t fully understand.

Participating in exhibitions post-2020 also means getting insights on how traditional visitors will view show going especially in view of the pandemic. Will sufficient numbers of the targeted visitors turn up to make participating worthwhile?

It is a whole new ball game and a different kettle of fish. The good thing is that exhibitions are not going to be eradicated with the virus. They are here to stay. All that it requires is for one to be willing to learn and to prepare adequately.

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