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Pandemic Offers Rebirth for Trade Shows in Need of Disruption

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2020 has been a transformative year for trade shows, with organizers pivoting their business models and introducing new remote concepts to adapt to the changing times. Kingpins introduced Kingpins24, an online supplement to its physical show, Informa Markets Fashion partnered with e-commerce platform NuOrder on what it called the industry’s “largest digital” trade show and Liberty Fairs debuted its first virtual marketplace in partnership with wholesale platform Joor.

Though many of the digital strategies were met with success—Informa’s digital event brought in 1,200 brands and 20,000 buyers—trade show organizers are left questioning what shows will look like in the future as a result of the complete disruption.

But according to some experts, the pandemic didn’t cause change—it simply accelerated it.

During a trade show roundtable hosted by Fashion Snoops last week, Sebastien de Hutten, CEO at the children’s apparel trade show Playtime, said the industry had been looking to modernize the traditional trade show concept long before 2020.

“We tend to forget when we’re in the middle of a crisis that there were problems before the crisis came,” de Hutten said. “It wasn’t easy for trade shows in the past few years. I think we were living in a period of transition, and it escalated to a huge acceleration now with this pandemic. Everyone is realizing that there are extraordinary benefits in digital, extraordinary benefits in the physical, and the real challenge is indeed to bring them together.”

De Hutten added that his team had been attempting to shift away from brands’ “obsession” with in-person order placement, noting that it “doesn’t make sense” for buyers to place an order at a show when they have limited time to consider what other brands they will order from.

“We have all been dreaming for years that exhibitors and buyers would come to the show without necessarily wanting to write orders immediately,” he said, adding that once people get in the habit of using digital, the physical experience will improve when the time comes to hold events again.

To this point, experts inferred there may be an opportunity for trade shows to emerge stronger than ever—as long as they shift their strategy from being a trade show with a website to becoming a digital platform with a physical presence.

A number of initiatives have been developed throughout the year to accommodate this shift. In partnership with Materials Exchange, Kingpins launched Kingpins Exchange, an online denim marketplace and digital denim showroom platform considered to be the “Netflix of materials sourcing.” Similarly, Italian trade show organizer Pitti Immagine announced Pitti Connect, a digital platform that offers networking and educational opportunities for exhibitors and attendees ahead of its in-person events.

Like Pitti, men’s trade show Liberty Fairs also pivoted to educational content. Edwina Kulego, Liberty Fairs vice president, said that the company saw the pandemic as an opportunity to “pull back and have meaningful conversations.” The trade show organizer launched two monthly webinar series focused on relevant topics such as scaling retail and optimizing financing during the challenging times.

“We had really hard conversations about money,” she said. “We really wanted to focus on what brands need at this very moment. The educational component was huge for us.”

Liberty Fairs will continue its webinar series to provide helpful resources for the industry, she added. Coming up, it will also partner with outerwear brands to support restaurants affected by the pandemic. From Dec. 15-22 at New York City hotspot The Waverly Inn, consumers can enjoy food and drink while viewing a showcase of the latest outerwear fashion.

“We’re just going to keep talking with our brands, with our retailers, and just figure out what the next step is to get everyone back to doing business,” she said.