Empty seats in an auditorium
Outside Business Journal

Lessons from a Year Without Trade Shows

Business without big gatherings hasn't been easy, but the things we’ve learned along the way will resonate for years to come

Empty seats in an auditorium

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Right now, in a typical year, we’d be gearing up for another Outdoor Retailer trade show: whirlwind days spent reconnecting with industry pals and our favorite brands. There would be parties and press events, hugs and high fives. But the past 12 months have been a lot of things. Typical isn’t one of them.

This year, we’ve all had to make changes. And amid the pivoting, we’ve learned a few things—about how we do business, and how we relate to one another.

Embrace New Tech, Fast

“The pandemic has taught us, if nothing else, how to adapt,” said GearJunkie reporter Mary Murphy. “Our industry is going to rely a lot more on the technologies that let us connect, look at products, talk to athletes, and interview people virtually.”

That’s been the case for Thule, which chose to look at the need for new technologies as an opportunity, not a chore.

In March, when the summer trade show schedule started to look tenuous, the roof rack gurus were quick to adopt an interactive, 360-degree video platform. The self-directed, virtual walk-through lets retailers and journalists explore a staged warehouse full of elaborate product displays. The platform has seen 2,524 unique visitors from more than 160 companies to date. “A big thing for me as a buyer is getting to really experience a product firsthand,” said Nathan Grothe, category merchandise manager for REI. What Thule did by creating a rich virtual environment is the next best thing.

Chris Ritchie, Thule’s PR and communications manager, sees his company’s fast adoption of the new tech as a win-win: since virtual tours offer no real space constraints, they let Thule show off far more products than it could in a booth, and the viewers can learn at their leisure and return any time.

Lean on Your Network

Meghan Highland, buying coordinator of casual and outdoor apparel for Western retail chain Jax Mercantile Co., says the helpfulness and camaraderie that have characterized this year have taught her how to lean on her industry network. This season—her first in the apparel buyer role—she’s had to rely heavily on her reps for advice. That includes recommendations on product aesthetics, especially color-ways, and how to coordinate items on store display racks. “I’m really trusting my reps a lot and asking for their support, whereas in a normal buying season, I might not be in that same position,” she said.

That “lean on me” mindset has also been helpful when muddling through new COVID-19 rules and regulations. Darby Communications was able to compare notes with fellow Southeast-based public relations firm Groundswell PR during the initial transition back to in-person office work. The two agencies also knocked around ways to plan effective virtual media events. “We had an ally,” said Angie Robinson, Darby’s vice president. “It was nice to be able to bounce ideas off someone who’s in the same boat as you.”

Appreciate Quality over Quantity

Many PR firms have hosted smaller press events to comply with social distancing best practices, and Murphy of GearJunkie says she’s appreciated the close-knit vibe.

The agencies have noticed the difference, too. This summer, Big Fish Collective invited three writers (a much smaller-than-usual group) to a socially distanced, on-water event for Mustang Survival. “It was like we were having a one-on-one at a trade show, but we were also able to test the product and have some more intimate time,” said Big Fish’s Brooke Fifield. “In the future, we’ll keep in mind that smaller events are something journalists are asking for.”

Keen Footwear has also followed that “bigger isn’t necessarily better” mantra and reined in its 2021 line. Erik Burbank, chief brand officer, notes that with fewer SKUs, they’ve been able to zero in on their consumer.

“We asked, ‘What are our fans doing?’ ‘What problems are we trying to solve for them?’” Burbank explained. “This has been an opportunity to be more focused than we would have been.”

Forget Old Rivalries

In a move uncommon among competitive PR firms, California-based OutsidePR and Echos Brand Communications joined up in April to create a two-day virtual brand showcase, dubbed the Reveal Global Media Conference. The two firms managed to rally 46 brands, including some outside of their portfolios, which presented to the 212 journalists who attended the conference. Later in the summer, PR firms Momentum and Akimbo founded a similar partnership for their Virtual Showroom series.

The benefits of collaborative events extend beyond the media attendees: Jennifer Kriske, founder of women’s cycling brand Machines for Freedom, says Reveal helped level the playing field between major industry players and boutique brands like hers. “With my limited budget, I wouldn’t be able to get that kind of concentrated attention in a real-life trade show,” she said. “This is a really efficient way to get our brand in front of an audience.”

Rethink the Budget

Uncertainty has been a mainstay of the pandemic, especially in terms of budgeting. Nemo Equipment reacted quickly back

in March, revising its operating model, slashing expenses, and making sure it was putting its money where its values were. “We decided to base our sales target on what it would take to retain our people and not have to furlough or lay off,” said CEO and founder Cam Brensinger. The one area they didn’t touch: research and development. “We saw a big competitive advantage in being a brand that never took its foot off the gas on new product development.”

Of course, brands with a line item for trade shows suddenly had some extra cash. Emergency kit manufacturer Uncharted Supply used it to beef up its marketing and advertising spending. After seeing search frequency for terms like “emergency kit” and “air mask” skyrocket, the small brand invested in search engine optimization and online ads, something it might not have been able to do at the same scale in a trade show year. It was successful, too: “At times, a dollar spent would return nearly $100 in sales,” said owner Christian Schauf.

Grumble Less, Enjoy the Long Days More

There’s no escaping it: Trade shows are just as exhausting as they are exciting. “The long, consecutive days would wear us down, and we’d think, ‘Oh, we have to go do this,’” recalled Highland of Jax Mercantile Co. “But now that Outdoor Retailer is gone, I really miss those long days full of meetings and in-person interactions.”

While we’ve learned a lot about how to do business differently (and in some cases, better) over the past year, most of us are pining to get back together. Sure, much of the time is spent cooped up inside, pound- ing the aisles, squinting at spec sheets, but there are also happy hours, new connections, and meetings with old friends.

Murphy summed it up well: “It will be the biggest family reunion.”