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Cloud Fatigue: extreme tiredness resulting from mental or physical withdrawal from society. Symptoms include the desire to wear pants and get out of the house to hang out in the office.
Cloud Fatigue: extreme tiredness resulting from mental or physical withdrawal from society. Symptoms include the desire to wear pants and get out of the house to hang out in the office.

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As the world went into lockdown, businesses were forced to move trading from the street to the cloud. With the convenience and savings afforded to us by technology, are we looking at a digital-only future? ANGELA HAN reviews the state of affairs, one year on.

Aside from the initial inconvenience of scrambling to set up remote infrastructure, most companies rejoiced at the cost-cutting opportunity to go digital during COVID. Restrictions and lockdowns gave businesses motivation to finally invest in new technology that would allow for remote work, resulting – overnight – in reduced overheads and commuting time.

As countries went into lockdown and events were cancelled worldwide, my inbox overflowed with invites to dozens of makeshift international webinars, digital conferences and virtual trade shows – and I could attend all of them, with no pants!

"SMEs and international conglomerates alike are asking the same questions as they approach the digital space with fresh eyes: ‘Where do we need to exist?’, ‘How do we need to exist?’, ‘Do we even exist?’"

It felt, in some ways, like the pandemic kickstarted the future, and thanks to the digital solutions available, everyone could remain connected while being apart. So what does this digitalisation of businesses and relationships mean for the future of physical events?

No doubt, the technological revolution has forced businesses into an existential quandary over the decades.

SMEs and international conglomerates alike are asking the same questions as they approach the digital space with fresh eyes: ‘Where do we need to exist?’, ‘How do we need to exist?’, ‘Do we even exist?’

During lockdown, people broadcasted live videos of their most meaningful events.

From weddings, funerals, and childbirths to concerts and religious services, where there was a will, there was a platform. Could businesses operate the same way? Did this mean we no longer needed to exist in person? Indeed, do we even need pants now?!

Naturally, I turned to the tech industry for answers, given they’d already been set up for remote work long before the pandemic hit, equipped with the best software and conference platforms. Surely, they had the best alternative solution to physical conventions and meetings.

World's largest exhibition

Anyone who has attended a trade fair will know the joy of:

• The unexpected  Simple tasks such as standing in line for a coffee, or ducking to the toilet can create chance meetings and chats that can’t be replicated online.

• Getting lost  Anyone who has wandered the halls of an exhibition will have taken a 'wrong turn' only to stumble across something completely unforeseen.

• Back to front – While the most high-profile and well-known exhibitors usually congregate at the entrance, the new and small operators at the back of the hall can often be at the cutting edge, ready to surprise.

• No weapons – While COVID has changed things (for a little while, at least) there is still a lot to be said about a handshake. As a symbol of good faith and promise dating back centuries -  to show you were not armed – 'the handshake' remains an important part of business and life!

• The eyes have it Peripheral vision allows us to see outside our point of fixation, and without realising it your eyes can detect items of interest, effectively, hundreds of metres apart, without you doing anything. How wide is your computer screen; peripheral vision has no advantage at a virtual fair. 

In an ironic twist, the fastest growing trade shows in the last two decades have been in computing and technology, with the annual Las Vegas-based Consumer Electronics Show (CES) now the largest trade show in the world.

The event has broken attendance records each year, with more than 182,000 visitors and 4,500 exhibitors in 2019. Stalls stretched across 2.9 million square feet of exhibition space. In comparison, their 2020 replacement virtual show drew only 1,100 exhibitors with – unsurprisingly – undisclosed visitor numbers.

Moreover, there are more than 9,100 technology trade events listed as physically taking place in 2021 on booking website 10times.com, making it the second most popular trade show category after medical-and-pharmaceutical.

Would you believe that there are 526 face-to-face cloud computing conferences taking place, on the ground, this year alone?

The likes of Microsoft, Google, Samsung, Oracle and Huawei have also ramped up their direct-contact marketing budgets in the last decade, allocating millions towards physical events and sponsorships, which build trust with their user-base and strengthen relationships within their trade networks.

In an industry where new, faceless businesses crop up online by the thousands every minute – and disappear just as quickly – this has been a critical move to differentiate the real players from the pretenders.

Quintessentially, we have the digital relying on the physical in order to stay alive.

Over time, tech companies have recognised the need to ‘humanise’ their brand and connect face-to-face in order to thrive. They have learned to harness physical events as opportunities to make a lasting impact with their audience and validate their position in the market.

So how come these advanced high-tech companies still prefer to meet in person despite every piece of digital innovation being available at their fingertips?

The answer is simple: face-to-face rules supreme.

Can everything be done online? Yes. Should everything be done online? It depends. As it turns out, there are some things in business you can’t replace with digital.

Despite all its good intentions virtual exhibitions have been largely underwhelming for visitors and exhibitors alike. Expectations were high, but results have fallen short.

"So how come these advanced high-tech companies still prefer to meet in person despite every piece of digital innovation being available at their fingertips? The anwer is simple: face-to-face rules supreme."

In a survey conducted by Tradeshow Logic last year, 67 per cent of surveyed exhibitors said that the digital event failed their networking expectations, 63 per cent said the platform didn’t allow for promotion of new products and 52 per cent believed that the platform did not meet their branding requirements.

Only 10 per cent said the event exceeded sales expectations, with 43 per cent saying they will unlikely participate in any more virtual events.

Some virtual exhibition formats mimic real venues and events, which makes them, by default, inferior to the real thing.

While novel at first, 2020 made it abundantly clear that digital events cannot provide anything new or exciting – at least, not any time soon. It’s still early days for digital platforms which miss the mark of audience engagement, as visitors are less likely to stay on a browser tab in the same way they walk around and stay in a convention centre. 

Moreover, users have the burden of navigating a new interface for every platform and technology, which is not nearly as enjoyable as happening upon a new supplier while getting lost in the halls. Physical events serve as an opportunity to get away from our familiar spaces, discover new ideas, build new relationships, and revisit old ones.

What if no one attends?

For exhibitors, the effort is not worth the return. Like building castles next to the waves, they’ve watched their digital presence disappear with nary an eyeball. At least with physical events, there is a stream of foot traffic to create new opportunities.

Sure, virtual event organisers can collect plenty of engagement data on buyers – but what if there are no buyers to track?

While online purchasing and discovery has helped bridge a divide during COVID-19, buyers searching for new products often prefer the tactile experience of a physical event to ensure they are buying quality products from suppliers they can trust.

For some operators, digital is all they need. But most still require physical contact. It's simply easier to sell when someone is in the same space as you, and you’re not competing with email notifications and browser tabs.

Will virtual exhibitions replace physical exhibitions? The answer is a resounding "No".

While it is tempting to feel that the internet is a solution to everything, we can’t lose sight of the fact that it is a tool designed to enhance our life experiences – not replace them.

When something matters, it needs to be done face-to-face.

 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Angela Han

Publisher  • Jeweller Magazine


Angela Han has more than a decade’s experience in the jewellery and luxury goods industry, having worked in all sectors from retail and manufacturing to design and supply. She has been with Jeweller for over ten years and has extensive experience in print and digital media publishing, business-to-business communications and strategy. 

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