Must the show go on?

The gaming industry has always had a very healthy trade show and conference business around it bringing gaming professionals of all sorts together with each other, suppliers, educators, etc. From major international companies to small local shops, we had events of all shapes and sizes where we could meet long lost colleagues, spend  the yearly capex on equipment and supplies, listen to industry leaders share their thoughts about the latest trends or learn a thing or two on educational sessions. Major gatherings like ICE with iGB, the G2Es, the SBC events and SIGMA just to mention the biggest ones, became must attend calendar dates for gaming professionals of management level.

All this in past tense since February, when the world entered a seemingly unstoppable avalanche of inadequate COVID responses. The conference and show industry answered very quickly, moving their land-based events into cyber space. Let’s see how successful and sustainable this move turns out to be.

The show ecosystem is a three tier one, and needs the organizers, industry professionals as visitors and suppliers as exhibitors for its existence. The financing of the whole circle obviously comes from the suppliers as they were able to show during the years that these shows helped them sell their goods and services. The organizers also pocketed their profits from the sales of exhibition space and sponsorships. The visitors got good pricing in the form of show specials and got to see many suppliers on one trip and do a proper comparison of the different offerings. Everyone profited one way or another and the social aspect of the whole gathering was the icing on the cake. Lavish parties, exquisite dinners in the best restaurants, show tickets, golf tournaments and similar off show activities were making sure the visitor would have a great time and come back the following year. And we did have a great time indeed.

Is any of this ecosystem movable to the online sphere? The organizers are using cutting edge technology to make the experience as realistic as possible and the recreate the usefulness and vibe of the land-based shows and conferences. For those of you who participated on a few of these in the past couple of months I don’t have to explain how sitting in front of a computer screen is no substitute for having a face to face chat with a vendor on the show floor, not to mention the rest of the experience. Conferences and online education, to a certain extent can give you similar bang for your buck, but even these cannot beat the presential version. Going from one virtual show to another it is evident that most people sign in, look around, maybe listen to a panel or presentation and they leave. The headcount is surely going down as more and more visitors get disappointed with the meaningless experience.

The core excuse for these shows, the shopping bit can now be done through a call or skype chat directly with the vendors at the convenience of both parties. Conferences can be pre-recorded and watched anytime. The part that made these gatherings fun, unfortunately cannot yet be replicated online.

Suppliers keep paying the advertisement dollars to the organizers for now, as this is what they have always done, and there is a solid longstanding relationship between them that keeps the momentum. But I believe very soon this house of cards will collapse, when suppliers and service providers one by one realize that their advertising budget can be put to much better use, not to mention the time and effort needed to participate on online shows with very little relevant visitors added to the already existing pressure of diminishing sales.

How the show industry will survive these times will very much depend on how long “social distancing” will keep the physical exhibition floors closed and how strong the existing ties with the different suppliers actually are to see them through current restrictions. They will have to come up with a different business model or end up like Nokia. I can see smaller boutique firms emerging, offering relevant content on different educational and conference niches. Content that lives well in its solely online form, that can be consumed and digested at the pace the customers sees fit. Trying to move a social experience based on personal contact and presence to an online environment is a futile effort and goes against every sales and marketing principle.

Time to move on guys before its too late. The exhibitions and conference organizers that served us so well during the past decades must embrace the spirit of adopting and innovating that our industry has been always known for.

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