Intelligence | How Trade Shows Are Adapting to the Digital Age

Pitti Uomo Magical Tour by F. Guazzelli | Source: Pitti Immagine

LONDON, United Kingdom — Physical trade shows, held over a few days in large exhibition halls, have long been the most effective and efficient way for suppliers to showcase and sell their products to customers. But today, the internet is making it increasingly easy to exchange information and conduct business regardless of physical location. On top of this, with the global economy in a state of turmoil, buyers are being more conservative with their travel budgets, putting new pressure on trade shows to compete for their attention and offer value for money.

In response to these shifts, many of the big trade shows are taking steps to digitally enhance their offerings. But for a system that’s rooted in face-to-face interaction, this presents unique challenges and prompts the inevitable question: can the in-person experience of a trade show ever really be replicated digitally?

Pitti Immagine, a series of fashion trade fairs based in Florence since the 1950s, might be one of the longest running shows. But last season, Pitti became a digital leader in its field, launching e-Pitti.com, a website that’s host to digital versions of Pitti Uomo, Pitti W and Pitti Bimbo.

Speaking with BoF, Pitti Immagine’s CEO, Raffaello Napoleone, was quick to point out that launching a digital presence was necessary to move the business forward. “In the last six years we’ve been monitoring the growing impact of digital media on the fashion industry,” he said. “Such impact has mainly hit the interaction between brands and consumers. What is lacking, from our point of view, is the application of digital media to the commercial relationship between brands and professional buyers,” he continued. “The trade fair industry has not yet started to leverage digital media to evolve — it’s still in the same way it was at the beginning. Trade shows are mainly physical events, with all the good things this means, but also with serious limits in terms of time and space.”

The power of the ‘always on’ trade show

In June of this year, e-Pitti.com was launched with 1080 participating brands (approximately seventy percent of the total number of Pitti’s exhibitors) and now offers an online marketplace, which features branded digital showrooms complete with 360 degree imagery and enables users to close deals online.

Mr. Napoleone expects these online showrooms to attract 150 brands by the end of 2011 and that e-Pitti at large will break even next year, emphasising that the ‘always on’ nature of digital makes the platform a highly convenient, value-added business tool. “We encourage brands to see e-Pitti.com as a 24-hour-a-day, 365-days-a-year open marketplace,” he said, explaining that e-Pitti is included in the €221 per square metre that exhibitors currently pay for their for physical stands.

The concept of the ‘365-days-a-year trade show’ is at the very heart of new digital initiatives like e-Pitti, which allows buyers and exhibitors to communicate and transact well beyond the confines of a traditional three to four day fair. At the physical Pitti show, where over 1,000 brands exhibit, a typical buyer attends for roughly two days and visits approximately fifty stands. The advent of an online platform like e-Pitti not only allows buyers to browse virtually, but gives those other 950 brands a second chance to gain new business.

Critically, a 365-days-a-year trade show also gives buyers the flexibility to order ‘out of season,’ allowing their organizations to respond more efficiently to market realities with reorders of fabrics or garments that have sold well, for example, something that’s especially valuable given changes to the fashion cycle and the broader climate of economic uncertainty.

Andrew Pollard, president of US trade show Project, agrees that implementing new technology is good for business, underscoring the power of an ‘always on’ event. “In 2012, we will be launching a digital solution that will allow our exhibitors and attendees to engage with each other in a convenient and modern way,” he said. “Like many industries, the business of fashion has undergone a transformation over the past few years; an online platform will allow us to efficiently communicate both creatively and commercially 365-days-a-year.”

These sentiments were echoed by Chris DeMoulin, international president of sister show Magic, which is also using digital to engage buyers and brands year round. “We have recently re-launched our website, magiconline.com, to act as a portal and provide a place to connect throughout the year,” he said. “These digital technologies and strategies — before, during and after the show — are literally transforming our twice-a-year event into a 365-days-per-year community.”

Magic is also leveraging digital to better enable their customers to create connections, not only with other businesses, but directly with consumers. “In an effort to increase the number of B2B and B2C connections our brands, retailers and other stakeholders have the ability to create through our network, we have launched a campaign that includes such efforts as bringing over 40 bloggers to our show to write and curate content, as well as applying a host of technologies, such as Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pose, Bumebox and more,” added Mr. DeMoulin.

Face time still crucial. Digital is a complementary tool.

But while the heads of some of the world’s most important trade shows agree that, in the internet age, their events require a robust online presence, in fashion, a touchy feely business that has always thrived on physical contact with product and building relationships through face-to-face engagement, some feel certain that the physical trade show will never be replaced by digital, especially when it comes to fairs that focus on the earlier stages of the supply chain, such as sourcing fabrics.

“Real life sensations are fundamental and necessary for buying and selling in our industry,” said Pier Luigi Loro Piana, president of the Italian textile fair Milano Unica. “At the moment, there is still no better way to do real business in textiles than at an environment like a trade fair,” he continued. “I hardly think, in the short term at least, that the centrality of the textile fairs will be replicated by some alternative — not while human contact and face-to-face relationships between producers, buyers and tactile products are still so crucial,” he added. “Certainly, there’s no denying the rapid development and growing importance of new digital technologies, but from my personal point of view, these are largely complementary instruments which can be used to strengthen one’s position, not something to replace it.”

Mr. DeMoulin of Magic agreed. “We believe that digital technologies must be employed to complement the trade show format, but that there is no replacement for the value we provide by bringing the fashion business together in one place every February and August,” he said. “You can’t replace the face-to-face interaction, the networking, the live seminars, the events.”

Alana Wallace contributed reporting to this article.