In the midst of the pandemic, trade exhibitions around the world have been postponed or cancelled, while many large-scale exhibitions have moved online. Virtual exhibitions will likely become mainstream and co-exist and develop with physical exhibitions after the pandemic is over.
Benjamin Chau: Mixed Online/Offline Format will be General Trend
As exhibitions have always been the main channel for SMEs to win orders, the Hong Kong Trade Development Council (HKTDC) organizes numerous international exhibitions every year. Last year, due to the pandemic, the HKTDC promptly changed its course and stepped up online services, e.g. consolidating the physical exhibitions and shifting them online as well as launching an upgraded version of “hktdc.com Sourcing” to provide a new channel for buyers and sellers.
Benjamin Chau, Deputy Executive Director of the HKTDC, anticipates that mixed-format (online plus physical) exhibitions would become a new trend. The HKTDC has different services for this, including Click2Match (an AI-enabled business matching platform), 3D virtual exhibition booths, product video production service, and the “hktdc.com Sourcing” platform.
Platform functions for matching buyers and sellers
Leveraging big data and AI for automatic matching, the Click2Match platform also offers buyers and suppliers online self-service functions for meeting scheduling, live chat, etc. During the online Summer and Autumn Sourcing Weeks, over 4,500 and 9,000 video meetings were arranged for buyers and exhibitors respectively.
“Suppliers at the online fairs were able to proactively engage with buyers from all over the world to improve opportunities for collaboration.” According to Chau, the biggest underlying challenge was time difference. “Fortunately, buyers in Europe and the US were willing to accommodate the time zone differences, so most online video conferences were held before midnight Hong Kong time.” In addition, to prevent suppliers and buyers from missing a scheduled video conference, the HKTDC mobilized 50 offices around the world to arrange for staff to send reminders in advance of the scheduled time to ensure that both parties attend the video conference.
Online promotional techniques are also important to exhibitors. In this regard, the HKTDC’s product video production service helps exhibitors who still do not have sufficient skills and resources to produce short videos to highlight the features of their products in a video format. The HKTDC has also launched training resources such as T-box (Transformation Sandbox, a free support service), free online seminars, Digital Academy and E-tailing Academy to equip SMEs to become “e-commerce experts”.
Value of physical exhibitions irreplaceable
Looking back at the experience of the past year, Chau noted that online exhibitions have unique advantages and certain creative industries have more room to flex their muscle on the virtual exhibition platform. For example, a fashion show, having shifted online, showcased the works of over 40 local and Asian fashion designers and attracted over 380,000 viewers. Such a viewership figure cannot be matched by physical shows.
However, he stressed that physical exhibitions are still irreplaceable and not all exhibitions are suitable to be held online. Jewelry exhibitions are a case in point, as people have to examine expensive pieces of jewelry closely as well as try them on to see if the style and design are appealing to them. Another example is the book fair. Chau said: “Activities such as writers’ talks held during the book fair not only make the fair a grand cultural event in the city, but also attract the presence of readers from places such as Mainland China, Taiwan and Southeast Asia.” Nevertheless, the HKTDC has added a brand-new Book Fair Online section to enable participants to look for exhibitors' online retail platforms and browse different e-reading resources, museum exhibitions and cultural activities provided by partners, including video footage from some of the most popular seminars held at the fair over the past decade.
Therefore, Chau believes that after the pandemic is over, future exhibitions will be held in a mixed physical and online format and O2O sourcing will become a new trend. He stressed that even after the resumption of physical exhibitions, the HKTDC will still regularly organize online sourcing fairs with different themes to provide suppliers with additional opportunities to engage with global buyers. It also plans to add virtual booths, live streaming of product presentations and product demonstrations to physical exhibitions to help suppliers promote products to overseas buyers who are unable to come to Hong Kong for the exhibitions.
Sum Wong: Virtual Exhibitions Overcome Time and Place Limitations and Reduce Costs
EventX, a smart event management software platform, helps customers in various industries hold virtual exhibitions or press conferences, which not only enables them to continue generating publicity and communication effects amid the pandemic, but also reduce costs. Many businesses will likely simultaneously adopt virtual and physical event solutions after the pandemic eases off.
Sum Wong, Co-Founder and CEO of EventX, said that businesses have begun to shift events such as exhibitions online in order to survive during the pandemic. “Most of our new clients are holding virtual exhibitions for the first time, so our team will arrange for training on top of providing case sharing sessions and recommendations when working with them.”
Virtual booths have appeal
As for the scale of exhibitions, Wong noted that it depends on the type of customer. For example, trade show organizers generally hold large-scale events which, when shifted to online virtual booths, can attract the participation of as many as hundreds of companies. Another example is that some corporate customers, such as Microsoft and South China Morning Post, need to launch marketing events, so his team will generally use digital tools such as chatbots and digital marketing methods to help them communicate with and sell to customers.
With regard to the development of new technologies and diversified solutions, Wong said that trade show organizers require a lot of real-time streaming activities that place a very high level of demand on broadband capacity, so software stability and data security are particularly important, as is the use of digital tools to help exhibitors communicate with and market to attendees.
Real-time communication functions overcome time and place limitations
“To improve the interaction among participants, we have added video and other real-time communication functions, which will place higher demands on the platform’s computing power and network traffic as it is not easy to ensure stable performance of the platform’s services.” He added that EventX has succeeded in reducing streaming latency by 70%, relying specifically on the Content Delivery Network (CDN) service provided by AWS (Amazon Web Services) CloudFront.
In Wong’s view, virtual exhibitions enable people from all over the world to participate in exhibitions or attend events, saving overseas participants’ travel time and expenses for the entire trip. In addition, there are a lot of data in the virtual world that can enable effective matching and recommend suitable participants for event organizers.
Demand will remain even after the pandemic is over
Studies have shown that annual spending on event software totalled over USD1 billion in Asia, making the continent the fastest growing region for such products in the world. Wong said his team has found that many exhibitors or international event operators that held virtual events for the first time saw not only lower costs but also a significant increase in the number of visits compared with before the pandemic. Therefore, he believes that after the pandemic is over and physical exhibitions gradually resume, many businesses will still hold events online and offline concurrently or regard online events as a “Plan B” to increase the freedom of participation and resolve venue issues or regard them as a solution to unexpected situations.
“Currently, online exhibitions have not completely replaced physical exhibitions as it is difficult for the online format to provide participants with hands-on and interaction opportunities. However, for certain press conferences and seminars, it has become a new trend to shift online.” Wong is convinced that the simultaneous use of virtual and physical event solutions will be the general trend in the future.