Sam Gerber still goes to trade shows, but these days only in his dreams. 

“Every other night, I’m in a different part of the world,” says the co-founder of travel adaptor company WorldConnect, who also sits on the management board of Global Travel Retail trade organisation the Tax Free World Association (TFWA). “Last night, I was in Moscow, except it was Moscow mixed in with an Asian city. And, in these dreams, I meet people I see at trade shows.”

For Gerber, the dreams are his brain telling him how much he misses live, face-to-face networking with colleagues and contacts. But, for the moment, as COVID continues to restrict travel, Gerber’s form of nightly networking is as close as any of us can get to the real thing.

Trade shows, a staple of everyone’s business year, have been among the hardest-hit sectors during the coronavirus pandemic. Their very design goes against even the loosest virus controls: packed with people who like to shake hands, often international and – in beverages, at least – lots of sampling.

Event cancellations were a weekly occurrence last year. TFWA, which runs a string of exhibitions around the world, held strong hopes of holding its main show in Cannes in October, but eventually relented. This year, the group moved its Asia-Pacific show out of Singapore for the first time in the event’s history, but still ended up cancelling as the logistics of flying attendees in from around the world to the new venue in China’s Hainan island province proved insurmountable.

How well do you really know your competitors?

Access the most comprehensive Company Profiles on the market, powered by GlobalData. Save hours of research. Gain competitive edge.

Company Profile – free sample

Thank you!

Your download email will arrive shortly

Not ready to buy yet? Download a free sample

We are confident about the unique quality of our Company Profiles. However, we want you to make the most beneficial decision for your business, so we offer a free sample that you can download by submitting the below form

By GlobalData

“It’s almost impossible to plan, and then recommend [to visitors] some sort of safe itinerary and a safe procedure,” Gerber explains. “And then, almost impossible to get any visibility on visa regulations and how flexible we can be.”

The response from the events industry has been to go digital, dragging yet another aspect of business life into video-conferencing. But, while the people just-drinks spoke to for this article maintain that live, face-to-face events remain their customers’ preferred option, the current switch to digital will leave a lasting impact on how we experience trade shows, even after we ditch Zoom and return to the conference hall.

“It’s going to have to be a hybrid situation next year,” says London Wine Fair head Hannah Tovey, who has been won over by some of the digital innovations her team have been able to incorporate into this year’s online event. “Now that we’ve got to grips with what you can do with these platforms, it would be absolutely bonkers to leave that behind once we go back into physical meetings.”

One example is the profile-building platform that will assist visitors to the London Wine Fair when it opens its digital doors on 17 May. Instead of physical stands, exhibitors will have their own profile pages, which will be accessible not just for the three-day event itself but for three months. Visitors will also have their own profiles while, behind the scenes, an algorithm will match people’s objectives for the show to fill a personal online dashboard with suggested meetings.

It’s basically a massive dating site

“It’s basically a massive dating site,” says Tovey, who explains that visitors can schedule meetings and hold them all within the confines of the software. “You don’t have to say, shall we do all the Zoom or Skype or whatever – it’s all there.”

These profiles, says Tovey, are likely to remain a feature of live shows because they do most of the legwork in filling up event diaries.

“Everybody has the best of intentions pre-show to line up meetings. And then, of course, it gets really busy. This is a really neat way of pre-empting that and getting it sorted.”

Last month, TFWA announced its own virtual/physical crossover – a new digital platform that will be a permanent feature of all future shows. ‘TFWA 365’ will roll out in time for the organisation’s ‘Asia Pacific Hainan Special Edition’ digital event set for 21 to 24 June, a one-off show announced after the live version was cancelled.

Like the LWF platform, TFWA 365 is a place for content and data. But, because TFWA functions as a trade group for companies in Global Travel Retail as well as an events host, 365 is also touted as a social space for the duty-free industry.

“It’s like an organism that has different synapses; different aspects of the way we need to connect, not just our members, but all the different stakeholders of the industry,” Gerber says. “It’s like a virtual town hall, where everybody can check in say, ‘Okay, well, today I need to know a little bit more about data’.”

For the team at Arena, the events arm of research and information group GlobalData – of which just-drinks is a part – the coronavirus pandemic has had an even greater impact. Arena decided almost at the start of the lockdown in Europe to switch fully to virtual events. The team built its own digital platform and hosted its first virtual event in April last year. In the months since, Arena has focussed on building the platform’s engagement capabilities and, according to head of business development Valentin Gerasimuk, the technology has now reached critical mass.

“Personally, I don’t think it’s going to go back to where we were previously in completely the same way,” Gerasimuk says. “I can see organisations like ours being in a position where we will definitely continue using the elements of the virtual.”

Further advances in virtual networking lie ahead. Gerasimuk envisions a future where participants can sit in a virtual audience facing a digital speaker and ask live questions, just as they would at a real event.

“The opportunities are unlimited,” Gerasimuk says.

For the beverage alcohol industry, one of the obstacles of online events is sampling products, whether beer, wine or the latest spirit. The LWF this year is sending out 20,000 samples in 5cl tubes in an operation that Tovey describes as “mammoth” but ultimately necessary. She adds, however, that the culture of sampling in wine, and the convivial nature of people in the business (not to mention their relatively stronger aversion to technology compared to other industries) will hasten a return to live shows.

Even Arena, which almost immediately switched to virtual events, foresees an eventual resumption of live gatherings, though no set plans have been made.

For Gerber, the impulse for face-to-face is natural. “The physical interaction, the selling portion – that’s just human psychology,” he explains.

That desire has also been propelled by more than a year of intermittent lockdowns, seemingly endless Zoom calls and, of course, colourful dreams of global travel.

“Over the past 12 months, we have realised the limits of virtual meetings,” Gerber says. “We have learned the limits of technology.”