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The show must go on: the evolution of the trade show

With much of 2020 having been a write-off for trade fairs and exhibitions, organisers are hoping that 2021 will prove to be more successful, embracing digital and physical hybrids to evolve the format in a post-pandemic world.

Vinexpo Bordeaux: picture credit: Jean Bernard Nadeau

Following the emergence of the Covid-19 virus early last year, 2020’s packed trade show calendar collapsed as governments around the world restricted travel and locked down entire countries, meaning the hospitality sector was forced to close its doors. With new virus strains emerging and restrictions once more in place, has the 2021 trade show comeback been thrown into jeopardy?

As Rodolphe Lameyse, CEO of Vinexpo points out: “When you’re faced with a pandemic like Covid-19, the most certain thing you know is that you have to manage uncertainty.”

The choice facing organisers has been stark: cancel or adapt, and many of the big names – ProWein, Vinexpo Bordeaux, New York and Hong Kong, and the London Wine Fair – have seen their hopes of holding a physical event dashed in recent months. But Lameyse says organisers have a duty to their partners to think about what they can do as a replacement or a workaround – particularly after such a tumultuous year when the need to do business is never greater. So the old adage that ‘the show must go on’ holds true.

As ProWein’s Bastian Mingers says, holding ProWine Shanghai last November showed that the demand for the events is still there, even during a pandemic. “The question is rather which framework conditions have to be created in the future and which safely precautions have to be taken to offer all the prerequisites for a successful fair,” he says.

Rodolphe Lameyse, CEO of Vinexpo

At the time of going to press, Vinexpo Paris was set to be the first physical show in this year’s calendar, and will no doubt be watched closely to see how events of scale can be held in a post-pandemic world, with measures in place. But other organisers are choosing to incorporate digital elements, with shows such as Vinexpo Shanghai, the World Bulk Wine Exhibition (WBWE) and Millesime Bio held purely digitally to facilitate trade.

Hannah Tovey of the London Wine Fair, which in mid-January announced it was to go solely digital after the deteriorating situation in the UK ruled out a hybrid model, points out the benefits of this route. “It extends the live element of the show, allowing exhibitors to engage with a significant audience beyond three days, and will also attract a broader audience, those for whom travelling to Olympia is just not a viable option,” she says.

Lameyse agrees, noting that the online platform Vinexpo launched last year, Vinexposium Connect, not only helped the team stay in close contact with partners and exhibitors during the year, but also extended its reach beyond its core audience, engaging with business professionals in new regions, as well as educated wine lovers.

“It’s clear to me that the field of digital opportunity was absolutely the right thing to do – we’ve been working with the team to find the opportunities for our client and find interesting and relevant content for our community to maintain the link,” Lameyse explains. “We want to use it as a second way of delivering and sending the message from our clients to a new broad audience.”

This element is being recognised in hybrid models – at the World Bulk Wine Exhibition Asia, for example, producers can book virtual stands at the show, which are supported by WBWE staff.

Last year was one of great insights, Otilia Romero de Condes of the WBWE says. “We have thought and acted quicker than ever, and that has triggered many ideas. One of the major innovations has been the step forward in online presence by the industry’s gurus. Suddenly, during the confinement, we had the opportunity of following genuine masterclasses and business talks with personalities who, until now, only spoke in large auditoriums.”

This trend is likely to continue to develop and become even more targeted in the post-pandemic world, she says.

Hannah Tovey of the London Wine Fair

But as indispensable as virtual meetings and masterclasses have been in the past year, all the organisers agreed that in a sociable industry that relies so much on relationships and tasting a physical product, there are many areas that are hard to transfer to the digital world.

“At some point you want to taste the product, smell it, have it in your mouth, and obviously that is the limit of digital,” Lameyse states. “The mix of digital and physical is an opportunity to deliver events. And unlike other categories, we have a lot of room for improvement in the digital world, which is what I am most excited by, that we are not mature yet.”

Tovey of the London Wine Fair argues that the pandemic is already changing people’s way of thinking about many aspects of their lives.

“Being more conscious of the necessity for travel at all levels, from local to international, is just one thing we will need to consider,” she says. “While a huge part of the wine industry’s business needs to take place in person, face to face with tastings – and nothing can entirely replace that – there are definitely some elements that can, for some, work better virtually, especially when time pressures make travel difficult.”

The “great revolution” in video conferencing, online transactions, online events and teleworking are changes that cannot be reversed, Romero de Condes says, but businesses now need to re-evaluate the ideas that have emerged in the past year. “Now is the time to plan ahead, reorganise all this immense innovation that has surged during the crisis, and see how we can improve it so that it can make sense in the long term.”

As Lameyse argues, you cannot go through a pandemic such as this without changing and adapting. “The real question is have we made the right changes?” he says.


Please see here for our guide to the exhibitions and trade shows that are set to go ahead – whether in physical or digital form – in 2021. We will be updating these as and when new information is released. 


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