Artificial intelligence, augmented reality and many other digital technologies have matured into useful tools in the exhibition industry over the past twelve months. Nevertheless, a disconcerting feeling still arises when talking to executives from the trade fair industry about digital transformation. Stephan Forseilles, Tesi Baur and Gunnar Heinrich from the UFI Digital Innovation Committee discussed this topic with numerous representatives from the exhibition industry at the UFI Global Congress in Johannesburg and the European Conference in Verona and asked them to vote in real time on bold statements about digital transformation in the exhibition industry. Here are some of the most discussed topics and why there is still a worrying wait-and-see attitude.


Data protection laws, even if they make everyone’s life (slightly) more complicated, should not massively slow down the digital revolution. On the contrary, they could prove to be an opportunity to create a new kind of relationship with customers based on trust and transparency. The big losers here are those who continue to cling to 20th century marketing methods and send out as many emails as possible, preferably with a tiny ‘unsubscribe’ button, grey on white, in the middle of a mile-long footer.


The spectre that “virtual trade fairs” will replace live events can definitely be buried: Virtual reality will not pose a serious threat to the trade fair industry, at most a useful addition. People will still want to meet in person.


Millennials are a generation that signifies fundamental change. They are the “selfie generation”, drawn more to experiences than brands. They grew up with amazon and Facebook and expect every experience to be just as easy, fast and fun. Does the exhibition industry offer that? (see below, but spoiler beware: it doesn’t). Millennials will make up 50% of the workforce by 2020. Every company should definitely work towards filling more key positions with Millenials. 75% of executives agree.


Amazon, Facebook, Google, Alibaba and many others have shown us how quick and easy services can be: Search, register, buy, recommend… Even in physical shops, like amazon’s “Go Store” in Seattle, where there is no checkout anymore: You just take your purchases and go! Does the exhibition industry offer the same level of incredibly simpler services? Well…


82% of the executives surveyed think the exhibition industry offers outdated customer experiences like 30 years ago, far from the convenience and speed of Google, amazon or Facebook. From registration (89% think a revolution in registration processes is urgently needed), to queuing, wayfinding, communication with each other, stand booking, to furniture delivery and power supply at the stand… Everything is still far too tedious and slow! The registration process in particular needs to be revolutionised, having hardly been changed since it was put online a few decades ago. Can’t the process be made more convenient and user-friendly with new technologies, such as face recognition or artificial intelligence?


Some will think: we, on the other hand, are taking action: We are using new technologies and improving our customer experience to compete with the best companies, right? At least we are working on it? Well, 95% of the executives surveyed think that the exhibition industry is only pseudo-digitising. Yes, we play with technologies and they all brag about revolutionising the customer experience, but they are only pretending.Under the guise of A.I. / IoT / Big Data / VR / AR, they continue to be old-fashioned exhibition organisers and service providers driven by one thing only:Sales.Satisfaction surveys, apart from the fact that everyone hates taking part in them, are just statistics, not the eye-opening, awakening wake-up calls they should be.


So, 80% think the exhibition industry provides a lousy customer experience. 90% think that some of their old-fashioned processes, such as registration, need to be revolutionised because they may drive customers away. 95% think they are just pretending to do something about it. They are in a dark corner, but they know it! They are aware that if a disruptive competitor were to enter their market, with an Amazon-like customer experience, Netflix-like modern content, and convenience and price like Uber, they will see a tectonic shift of their customers towards this new entrant.Or are they not aware of it?


This is exactly where that uneasy feeling comes in: Almost 70% of exhibition industry executives still think that, despite the above figures, there is no risk of their industry becoming “uberised”, either by a new entrant or an existing competitor that turns its business model and service on its head, as amazon, Tesla, Uber, SpaceX or AirBnB have done in other industries. Move along. Nothing to see here. We are the kings on the hill. We are safe for the foreseeable future. Executives from the music industry, the hotel industry or the automotive industry probably thought the same way a few years ago. Probably those in charge at Nokia also saw it that way in 2006, a year before the first iPhone came on the market.


Nevertheless, awareness is rising. More and more Millennials are taking up key positions. Artificial intelligence is now being used daily for marketing and sales optimisation, and other A.I.-based applications are getting better in matchmaking, for example. AR is being used as a sales tool, such as Suntec Singapore’s HybridD tool, which recently won the UFI Digital Innovation Award. In addition, many highly motivated start-ups are emerging to improve the attendee experience. More and more people feel that change is needed. Reverse mentoring programmes are being introduced, where experienced executives are coached by digital natives on the customer service expectations of younger audiences.


It seems as if the trade fair industry is on the verge of a turning point. Everyone knows something is coming, but they see the wall as far away and think they still have time to correct course or even that the wall will be gone by the time they get there. But maybe it is closer than it seems and nonetheless – wanting to provide a better and revolutionised experience for participants and customers is never a bad idea!


This article is based on Stephan Forseille’s contribution „Why discussing digital with the exhibition industry makes me scratch my head“ to the UFI Digital Innovation group on LinkedIn. Stay in touch and up to date with digital innovations in the exhibition industry.


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Come to the next Focus Meeting of the Digital Innovation Group: Once a year, we invite CIOs, marketing managers, IT specialists and anyone interested in the digital transformation in our event industry to a Focus Meeting. In addition to interesting talks and presentations, the three finalists for the UFI Digital Innovation Award also present their solutions at the Focus Meeting. Take part and vote for the winner.


Munich, 11 July 2018, © adventics GmbH