Interview with Vincent LARQUET
Trade shows must constantly reinvent themselves if they are to continue being accelerators and transformers of the business ecosystems they operate in, delivering real added value for all! Vincent Larquet, Strategy and Sustainable Development Director at UNIMEV (the French Meetings Industry Council) helps us to understand the challenges and opportunities created by such ongoing change.
Vincent Larquet, what are the main challenges facing trade show organizers today?
The fact is, several major challenges are emerging for trade show organizers and all suggest we have to re-consolidate as key hubs of knowledge, creativity and innovation for our communities – communities facing major ecological, economic, social and political upheaval.
The organizer needs to become a ‘transformational events designer’, offering a future-proof vision for the sustainable growth of their community. These represent considerable challenges and tremendous opportunities!
Three major trends however complicate this imperative for change:
- market disintermediation by digital-only actors, bringing three consequences likely to challenge the intrinsic value of a business event:
- these actors can bypass a sector’s intermediaries, who themselves are historic clients of the show.
- they may offer digital platforms for ongoing communication, marketing and sales within a sector, directly competing with the physical show.
- they coordinate digital market communities, which they know inside out thanks to the data generated by their platforms, and can organize highly specialized and customized events, making the traditional trade show obsolete
- participants’ increasingly high expectations of the experience they will enjoy at the event. Beyond the immersive conditioning of audiences, the main challenge here is the event’s capacity to generate engagement. This engagement will be all the stronger where the participant not only creates their own experience, but simultaneously is the subject of others’ experience (otherness) with themselves.
- the omnipresence of sustainable development concerns. The social responsibility expected of a show - by its audience, politicians and civil society - requires not only environmentally-responsible event production, but also educating the public in its eco-responsible actions, its long-term contribution to sustainable development of their community, and the planning for and management of the event’s legacies (its positive and negative externalities).
How are trade shows innovating to meet these challenges?
We are seeing significant investments by organizers in various innovative schemes – and I’m not just talking about financial investment!
For example, looking at business events alone: to support events-based sales initiatives by exhibitors and visitors, organizers are implementing business match-making tools, as well as ways of enhancing the offer beyond the exhibition spaces themselves. These include innovation awards that identify potential future industry actors, content-based business talks, and experimenting with prototypes or new solutions with potential end-customer audiences.
More broadly, these challenges raise the question of the organizer’s role in relation to their audience. The challenge for organizers is therefore to successfully re-intermediate their market, sometimes by reconfiguring it: they must again become a highly selective specifier of a comprehensive and innovative proposition, to restore the confidence of participants.
What do these strategies actually deliver?
In terms of knowledge, trade shows are increasingly creating editorial content: publications looking at trends, innovation research, studies on community expectations, analysis of fundamental societal shifts etc.
More generally, we are seeing the implementation of hybridization strategies by organizers, applicable to all sorts of fields of activity, from the strategic to the operational:
- Hybridization of participation objectives so that the show’s focus becomes not purely business, but also brings in ideas, partnerships, innovation, science etc.
- Hybridizations of communities, for example the opening-up of B2B to B2C, or to players on the sector’s fringes, through the de-compartmentalizing of disciplines;
- Hybridizations of content formats (confex – trade shows/conferences, festivals, fairs/exhibitions/talks, sport/business, cultural/societal events etc.);
- Hybridizations of meetings modes by combining the before, during and after event in a strategy of digital relational continuity (content place, connection place, marketplace);
- Hybridizations of physical experiences augmented by phygital devices during the event.
Another example is the increasingly personalized responses to more specific customer needs that can also be achieved through the geo-replication of trade shows, or corporate sourcing trade shows.
The events sector has also understood that these transitions necessitate broad engagement, which has for several years manifested itself through collective sector investments in four marketing and innovation schemes tailored to events professionals and their business ecosystems:
- The ESCP-VIPARIS-UNIMEV Professorship (in partnership with Eurovet, Hopscotch, Congrès et Expositions de Bordeaux and FG Design) dedicated to academic research into experiential aspects of events and analyzing what really drives participant experience;
- L’Innovatoire, UNIMEV’s seamless inspirations lab to create the trade shows and events of the future;
- French Event Booster, the events industry’s start-up incubator (the result of a partnership between VIPARIS, LÉVÉNEMENT Novelty-Magnum, Weyou Group, OPENevents and UNIMEV);
- The Cleo Event Performance Calculator developed by UNIMEV and the Paris Region Tourist Board to measure and monitor all the impacts of an event (marketing and business, socioeconomic, regional and environmental).
Are any other trends emerging among exhibitors and visitors?
Exhibitor and visitor expectations are diversifying. Everyone wants services that match precisely their own goals, particularly to obtain maximum return on investment from their show!
These are certainly exciting challenges... But they also require responding to sometimes contradictory challenges! The expectations of exhibitors and visitors may be diametrically opposed, as shown by the 2017 Explori insights report which remains relevant today (outside of the Covid-19 context):
2017 Explori insights report on visitor and exhibitor
expectations at trade shows in Europe
On the basis of all these findings, the challenge for trade shows organizers is then to rethink the fundamental value of the event and recalibrate the event’s business model accordingly.
The event should no longer be an end in itself, but part of a much more holistic dual support proposition:
- Collective, of the community in its necessary transformation, even where this must be done through ‘prodding’ that community;
- Individual, of each stakeholder, whose event needs may differ from or even contradict each other.
To achieve this, organizers will need increasingly detailed knowledge of their clients and of their clients’ clients, for example through their database, but also through carefully nurtured ‘one-to-one’ relationships. These contradictions can also be overcome by moving a community’s actors beyond their individual interests and toward higher causes.
In your opinion, what will be the impact of the Covid crisis on the industry in the medium and long term?
Every intrinsic weakness of the events sector will be exacerbated and become more pronounced. However, ‘the Covid effect’ will - for all the sectors and current actors who emerge from it - also accelerate the necessary changes.
Whatever happens, clients and wider civil society in the broadest sense will question the value and ‘acceptability’ of events, particularly given the considerable efforts being asked of them to address the major challenges of climate change.
Organizers’ best initiatives could be those that start with a complete rethink of the events industry. One that stands out is the SIAL (Global Food Marketplace) initiative reflecting on the food industry – specifically the ability of agriculture to feed tomorrow’s world (a collective intelligence mechanism that broadens the community and also reinforces the power of an event to drive engagement.
In times of uncertainty, there is also great interest in the development of tools for co-construction, which also apply to audience participation formats in the events and meetings of the future. Keeping the status quo is not an option!
The Covid crisis has highlighted the key challenges of civilization and what makes us human: ecology, food, energy, health, security/safety, education, mobility, social integration, resilient and autonomous regions, coexistence. It is up to events within every ecosystem to address them!
How do you imagine trade shows will look in a few years’ time?
In my opinion, the organizer will no longer be a service provider, but rather a development strategist for the community that they continually host. It is therefore vital that their actions and investments in production, communication, marketing and sales fit into a genuine strategic vision. This means there will be a reduced emphasis on sales, with a greater focus on industry, sector and company expertise within organizers’ teams. The event is a marketplace in which all participants (visitors, exhibitors, speakers, media, influencers, specialists, intellectuals) meet to exchange ideas, debate and build together. The physical meeting is the pinnacle of a difficult path that a community’s key players walk daily in an increasingly complex and bewildering world.
This vision essentially re-casts the show’s own sustainability in both its operational aspects and its substance (content). The question arises of its social utility: to answer, it must re-position itself.
That’s why I now prefer the concept of an open ecosystem to that of a community over-eager to lock itself into a communalism of self-satisfaction and revenue. The show must be able to challenge its own ecosystem, by repositioning itself to offer a space and time of inspiration, of the up-ending of hierarchies, of collaboration and solutions, seeking to question its own contribution to the great challenges facing humanity.
Comexposium and SOLUTRANS both share Vincent Larquet’s vision, and endeavor to continually reinvent ourselves to organize shows delivering real value. Do you have any advice or suggestions? We’re all ears!
With over 400 member companies, UNIMEV is the French Meeting Industry Council. From event conceptualization to production and event hospitality, it brings together every specialism in the sector – representing 90% of the French market, and counting among its members several of the biggest international names.
Working closely with public authorities, higher education and its partner associations, it is committed to enhancing and reinventing its events around innovation, the user experience, and sustainability.