Live Exhibitions Are Returning, Helped by Virtual: New Research

Encouraging vaccine rollouts have exhibition event organizers in many areas determined to go back onsite. However, they’ll need exhibitors on board. Against a backdrop of new variants and virtual alternatives, will they come back? Here’s what the data says.

Trade shows have had a rough go of virtual, forcing many sponsors and exhibitors to re-evaluate the value of virtual events and whether to double down on their own outreach. But in the context of an ongoing pandemic, rising costs of onsite, and uncertain turnouts, will exhibiting companies see the value of in-person events either?

New data says yes, but dampened budgets and virtual options may slow recovery.

Interest among exhibitors in participating in trade shows is almost back to pre-pandemic levels, according to a comprehensive new survey. Explori, a research agency and event feedback platform, partnered up with global exhibition trade association UFI to analyze 15,000 responses from exhibitors and exhibition visitors on their experience and outlook in the current environment, sharing their insights at the recent UFI European Conference 2021.

It also found that budgets, while down, may recover within a year. And while many current exhibitors are hesitant to embrace the digital future, virtual technology is creating a whole new audience for participation in live exhibitions.

Are Exhibitions Coming Back?

“The desire to exhibit is returning,” said Sophie Holt, managing director of Explori, during a session about the survey at the recent UFI European Conference, noting that when exhibitors were asked to rank their desire to exhibit more frequently in the future on a scale from 1 to 5 (5 being the most likely), the average score for 2021 was 2.77 compared with 2.65 in 2020 and 2.83 in 2019.

“This is a nice uptick, showing that we’re almost back to where we were in 2019,” she said, but adding that “it’s not exactly a cause for celebration, as exhibitor growth wasn’t a glowing picture to begin with.”

The bounce back among visitors desiring to attend trade shows was even more positive, with a score of 3.07 in 2021 in contrast to 2.69 in 2020. The score is almost back up to the 2018 level of 3.10.

While businesses have found other channels to generate sales, cancellations of live events in the past year have most severely impacted the ability to generate sales leads, according to the survey.

“Even in a 12-month period, they’ve not found ways to effectively make up for it,” Holt  said.

What About Budgets?

Not surprisingly, trade show budgets in 2021 are still somewhat down from pre-pandemic levels, according to the survey, with 42 percent of exhibitors reporting reduced budgets for 2021.

“It’s serious, but the cuts are not nearly as substantial as predicted back in 2020,” Holt said.

Where are budget cuts being made?

Some will look at frequency, with 73 percent of exhibitors who were looking to make the most severe cuts reporting they planned to participate in fewer events. A third of those with smaller budgets said they will reduce booth size. Slightly over half (58 percent) said they plan to reduce travel expenditures such as choosing lower priced hotel accommodations.

There may also be less razzle-dazzle at trade shows, with a third of exhibitors saying they planned to cut back on booth size and 40 percent opting for more modest design of their display areas.

When will budgets get back to pre-pandemic levels? It could be in less than a year’s time, according to Holt, noting that, on average, exhibitors expect budgets to snap back in about 11 months.

Digital Divide

With digital events replacing live ones over the past year or more, how do exhibitors feel about heading into an increasingly virtual or hybrid future? Many are less than enthusiastic, Holt said.

“Live exhibitors are not coming with us on the digital journey,” she said. “Only 64 percent have tried digital in any form — I thought it would be 80 or 90 percent. It was a surprise to me.”

Neither is there a lot of support for hybrid events. According to the survey, most exhibitors prefer a purely onsite event, with hybrid events viewed as the next best option and virtual the least.

“They think hybrid detracts from the live experience,” Holt said, adding that compared to those who preferred hybrid to onsite-only events, the exhibitors who were not impressed with hybrid were much more likely to have actually tried virtual events since the start of the pandemic (84 percent vs 64 percent). “So while virtual can be a good stimulator, some exhibitors have not had a good experience with virtual events.”

Training will be crucial for getting more exhibitors comfortable with hybrid or virtual events, Holt said during an interview with EventMB.

“The biggest gap is in training people to actually exhibit at virtual events. How to get someone to engage with your virtual booth? They have been bewildered by this. Many organizers have not trained them on this, perhaps because they are only starting to understand it themselves.”

– Sophie Holt, Managing Director, Explori 

Virtual Stirs Interest in Live Events

Having said that, a new market for live exhibitions is growing among “a pool of more digitally literate marketers,” according to research Explori conducted among senior marketers in the U.S. and U.K. who didn’t typically exhibit at trade shows before the pandemic.

In this way, virtual effectively served as a low stakes, lower investment foray into exhibiting, with these new digital exhibitors “in some cases [taking the] place of our traditional exhibitors.”

“About 70 percent of those who participated digitally said they now want to try live,” Holt said. “We’ve been able to capture their attention through digital, and now we can convert them to live events. There’s a new audience who will make live trade shows part of their marketing mix going forward.”

What does this new audience mean for the future of exhibitions?

“Hybrid will continue to exist, but it won’t do the same things live and virtually — it will be about how we can add value by adding a digital layer to a live event,” Holt said. A lot of our show organiser clients are looking at community building models. We may see a palette of events, some digital and some live and not necessarily all at the same time.”


Exhibitions are likely to bounce back in terms of participation and budgets to pre-pandemic levels within the next year. Training will be crucial if exhibitors are to make effective use of virtual technology. A new audience is emerging among those who have attended exhibitions in a virtual format and now want the live experience.

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