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  • Writer's pictureAdam Malik

From Trade Shows to Wedding Crashers: Digitising for Engagement at Live Events

Updated: Aug 4, 2023

When I entered the world of live events 22 years ago, I was excited by the possibilities. The exchange of ideas, the opportunity for collaboration, and the potential for collective progress by mobilising thousands of people – all these were palpable as the smell of the worn carpet at the Olympia Convention Centre. Fast forward to today, and I wonder: have trade shows lost their way or have I become the proverbial jaded ex-lover?


Like a plate of under-seasoned hors d'oeuvres at a distant cousin's wedding, most B2B live events have evolved into a bland experience. Once designed to maximise engagement and foster knowledge sharing, they are sad imitations of their former selves.


So, what went wrong? How did these events, once built to inspire action, end up as mere background noise for the corporate world? How do we fully embrace digital transformation in live events?


Design Thinking: Digitising for Engagement at Live Events


At the heart of digitising for engagement lies a powerful force: design thinking. This human-centred approach to innovation has the potential to breathe new life into our industry.


Think about where we are starting from for a moment: the very core of a tradeshow, the exhibit hall, now resembles an uninspired wedding reception. You know, the one with folding chairs, polyester tablecloths, and the same five songs on loop. The booths are much like the centrepieces at each table – all looks but no substance. In a vain attempt to stand out, exhibitors opt for flashy designs and gimmicks rather than focusing on genuine engagement and meaningful conversations.


Meanwhile, networking opportunities are left to chance and reduced to the awkward small talk you'd expect at a wedding cocktail hour. It's all polite smiles and handshakes, with the occasional exchange of business cards like canapes on a silver platter. The genuine connections and the thrill of collaboration have been replaced by a sea of disinterested faces, all waiting for the open bar to start.


The only thing missing from this tragic metamorphosis is the bouquet toss. But isn't that what tradeshows have become? A competition to see who can grab the most leads, regardless of whether or not they're a good fit?


We reclaim an event's true purpose – fostering connections and exchanging ideas – by pushing for a human-centred experience design that actively shifts knowledge and inspires action.

But all hope is not lost. Like the couple who ditches tradition to plan a wedding that reflects their unique love story, B2B events can reclaim their purpose. How? By aggressively designing experiences to foster engagement, create shifts in knowledge, and facilitate information exchange that inspires action.


All of these begin at the point of registration. In a world where we can know a participant's behaviour and intent, why not have the event guide a participant, whatever their role, with an attentive, gentle, and knowing digital hand? It's like having a personal psychic assistant who can anticipate your every move, guiding you to the people, experiences, and discussions that will make this event truly unforgettable.


This digital assistant introduces you to like-minded individuals for thought-provoking discussions, debates, and brainstorming sessions. And what will fascinate you most is that this process is not linear; it adapts to your evolving interests and intentions. As you engage with exhibitors, attendees, and experiences, it continually refines its recommendations, ensuring you are always in the right place at the right time.


But make no mistake: the event's true purpose – fostering connections and exchanging ideas – remains at its core.


Moreover, you could, for example, spin up a free 15-day trial for every marketing automation platform on your shortlist. But would your selection not be made faster through intensive exchanges at a "Knowledge Exchange Zone" where suppliers, expert system end-users, and product managers engage in facilitated discussions on critical topics? Picture this: instead of a cookie-cutter seminar gathering around a digital campfire, each participant contributes unique insights and experiences to the collective wisdom.


Would such a zone not be a better use of space currently occupied by the 'Booth Believer' clutching their roll-up banner and glossy brochures as if they were sacred texts, reminiscing about the good old days when handshakes sealed deals and business cards were currency?


Booth or Bust: Live Events in the Digital Age


The stand/booth is a time-honoured tradition, a beacon of corporate pride, and the epicentre of information exchange – or is it?


As we venture into the digital age, it's worth asking whether these physical installations still hold the same value they once did. Or whether the obstinate commitment to this edifice from a time when information was scarce and we relied on printed materials to share our knowledge is a barrier to innovation.


In addition, what was once a beacon of thought leadership, the seminars have become the equivalent of the dreaded wedding toasts: too long, too dull, and too self-congratulatory. These presentations have lost their spark, replaced by a seemingly endless parade of PowerPoint slides and forced laughter.


Let's reimagine live events in this digital age as collaborative spaces where like-minded attendees and exhibitors are guided to come together to exchange ideas, solve problems, and be at the forefront of cutting-edge innovations.

Would an expansive 'Knowledge Exchange Zone', with a free-flowing exchange of ideas, not be a better use of real estate and be better for the planet? We need more collaborative spaces where attendees and exhibitors come together to brainstorm, problem-solve, and innovate – a kind of intellectual matchmaking service that fosters engagement and information exchange in a more organic, dynamic way.


Gone is the bombardment post-event of generic emails by sponsors and organisers; now replaced by a carefully curated, highly personalised writeup and selection of resources based on the discussions you had participated in (Chat GPT is here, after all). Add to this further valuable information to help you take action and leave you with the warm, fuzzy feeling you get when someone remembers your favourite song or buys you a thoughtful gift.


"But what about sponsorship opportunities?" asks the 'Booth Believer', sensing their beloved booth banners and sponsored lanyards may be at risk.


Imagine a world where sponsors can align their brand with thought-provoking discussions, co-create content with attendees to address real-world problems and create spontaneous workshops of truly diverse inputs. Rather than simply plastering their logo on every available surface, sponsors can foster genuine connections with thoughtfully targeted audiences – a far more valuable investment in the long run.


We also need to address the exclusive nature of sponsorships when looking to foster open information and knowledge exchange. Instead of granting exclusive access to a single sponsor, we can create a digital ecosystem that encourages collaboration and healthy competition.


The 'Booth Believer', undaunted, counters that the stand is a tangible representation of a company's brand. In this physical space, attendees can immerse themselves in the organisation's culture and offerings. But why confine ourselves to the limitations of physical space when we can create highly personalised digital experiences that transcend borders and boundaries? Why not create better information connectors between participation signals at an event? Why not guide commercial participants' existing omnichannel activities based on signals originating in human interaction and shared experiences?

Alice, The Cheshire Cat and the Mad Hatter playing with digital cubes.
Let's embrace the madness and see where it takes us.

Design for Engagement and Ride the Digital Tiger


The future of tradeshows lies not in the rigid adherence to outdated traditions but in the willingness to embrace change and harness the power of digital technologies. By applying design thinking and challenging conventional wisdom, we can create experiences that honour the spirit of the tradeshow while propelling it into the 21st century.


"There's no substitute for face-to-face interaction," argues the 'Booth Believer.' We agree. However, the future of the B2B events industry lies at the intersection of tradition and innovation, where design thinking can guide us toward a more engaging, action-oriented, and human-centred experience for all.


We must change the approach to Digitising Events by prioritising the outcomes of human-centric information exchange, knowledge activation, and increased engagement and action. When we apply design thinking and build stronger digital roots, we learn from the past and start to create powerful human connections supported by the power of digital.


Let us pursue the goal of digitising for engagement at live events by casting aside the shackles of tradition and embracing the boundless potential of a fully digitised experience – one that makes us think, shifts our perceptions, and propels us into a world where the impossible becomes the new normal. After all, as the Mad Hatter once said, "We're all mad here." So, why not embrace the madness and see where it takes us?


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