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De-Risk Luxury Trade Show Event Marketing in 2021

It has long been known that to appreciate a luxury product, you need to touch it, feel it, experience it in person, and preferably meet the creators. However, to deliver the ease, comfort, and personalisation befitting a luxury experience, we need to go to the client, not make them come to us. Concierges, personal shoppers and travelling tailors deliver this promise eloquently. For planes, trains, automobiles and the like, it’s a bigger mountain to move, both physically and ecologically speaking.

Enter COVID-19, the disrupting factor that changed everything for luxury trade show event marketing in 2020… and now, it seems, for 2021 too, with new virus strains and continued lockdowns putting increased risk on travel plans and gatherings, despite hopes of universal vaccination within the year.

How COVID-19 affected trade show event marketing

In November 2020, 41% of survey respondents believed trade shows would not return to normal until sometime in 2022. A perfect storm of restricted travel, last minute cancellations, consumer desire for increased sustainability, plus evidence that virtual trade shows and experiences can successfully fill the void, has made it very wise for every luxury marketer to digitalise their trade show marketing budget for 2021 and beyond.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting you abandon your in-person trade show plans altogether; in fact, 39% of marketers think the absence of them in 2020 made their value more obvious to the C-Suite. Rather, I’d like you to consider bolstering planned shows with intelligent digital content which can bring a personalised digital experience to those prospects who won’t or can’t travel. Take inspiration from the fashion industry, for example, who now routinely offer live-streamed runway shows with augmented reality clickable product detailing, and catwalk-to-closet accelerated lead times, with the public exhibits themselves turning to a more artistic and evocative affair – installations highlighting brand meaning and values and rather than catwalks showcasing mere product attributes.

How digital events can help

In the event of a last minute show cancellation, your brand should have pre-prepared digital campaigns which you can leverage to fill the void. Indeed, show managers believe post COVID shows will include more virtual/hybrid events (79%), lower trade show attendance (73%), wider aisles (69%), limits on booth staffing levels, and fewer events moving forward (64%). Along with COVID cleanliness and security measures, all of the above could result in higher costs, lower ROI, and a reduced experience for the consumer.

Marketing, by definition, is consumer-centric in that it is the creation and communication of products, services and experiences that audiences value so highly that they will buy them from you. So, let’s start by imagining what benefits and inconveniences the consumer would get from your trade show, and then craft experiences that provide those same benefits without the downsides.

Usual Consumer BenefitsConsumer Downsides in 2021
Touch and feel the productPotentially not being allowed to touch the products
Meet the creatorsFull creative team not being allowed to attend
First to see new productsQueuing and appointment-keeping
Industry networkingRisk of virus transmission
A city breakCost of travel (time/money/risk to health)

In 2021 with Coronavirus still lurking in new and more deadly forms, it is clear that all the potential benefits of trade show event marketing become personal risks for the visitor, at a time when we don’t even know if they will be allowed to touch the products or meet the team in the way that they are accustomed to.

Now let’s look at the benefits and risks of a trade show to the exhibiting brand.

Luxury Brand Benefits of a Trade Show During ‘Normal’ TimesLuxury Brand Risks of a Trade Show: Exacerbated During COVID Times
Lead generation / Order bookReduced or no ROI, lost investment
Awareness, Positioning, Depleted or no attendance
ReputationCarbon footprint may contradict sustainability values
Market ResearchIntellectual Property loss and leakage to mass market brand emulation
Unified trade cycle: deadline to focus on prototypes, comms and contentFloods the market with competitive clutter, consumer overwhelm

The risks are all too obvious, and while it might be inconceivable to forego the show altogether, you can create a contingency plan to ensure you still achieve your KPIs in the event of a last minute cancellation.

Fortunately, global digitalisation brings the answers. Granted, luxury brands may be the last in line to give in to the digital transformation that started more than 20 years ago – after all, even HNW millennials still display a classic preference for face-to-face interactions when making high value investment purchases. But now, high-value heritage brands have their own luxury; being able to learn fast from the experiments and mistakes made by other digitally transformed industries before them. In 2020 we saw quick-off-the-mark brands respond to last minute cancellations with 360° tours, augmented and virtual reality immersions, and exclusive online live reveals. In fact, these substitutes performed so well in the automobile industry that many car brands quickly stated they would not return to key trade event Geneva Motor Show in 2021, leading the organisers to cancel it.

Even trade show organisations themselves are going digital, with CES, the world’s largest consumer electronics show, having just held its first fully digital show this 11-14 January 2021.

“The [CES] virtual experience has been designed to be personalized for each attendee: Attendees can create their own personal profile, schedule meetings and develop their own agenda. Throughout the event, the platform will suggest exhibitors, programming and connections based on their preferences.

Attendees can also live-chat with exhibitors and connect one-on-one with each other. Well-known names including Rich DeMuro, tech reporter for KTLA-TV Channel 5 in Los Angeles, and Naomi Kyle, actress, producer and host of Star Trek’s The Ready Room on CBS, will man the CTA anchor desk, the central command of the show, where attendees can hear the latest news and view interviews with key players in the industry.” 

The Consumer Tecnhology Association

How to create a successful virtual trade show or hybrid event

Some 69% of brands say they have participated in digital events (or plan to), but 87% felt they didn’t maximise the sales lead potential. The key to avoiding this is to delegate boggy production minutiae by employing experts to handle it, to make full use of digital tracking capabilities to recognise and retarget qualified prospects, and ensure your digital experience includes the same touch points, call to arms and human interaction that your real-world experience would have.

One barrier to entry for the average brand’s digital experience is a lack of tech-savvy with the consumer resulting in failed experiences. Not so with UHNWI audiences, who are known to possess both the latest devices as well as the staff and assistants to help them use it. 

Furthermore, is there anything less luxury than making the consumer come to you to do the transaction? Luxury is about experiences that provide comfort, simplicity, ease and save time. Therefore could it be possible that in this day and age, a luxury brand could provide a better experience for the prospect, through local and digital means? With 52% of marketers anticipating a shift from large, national shows to smaller, regional alternatives such as corporate roadshows and private receptions, this would indeed suit the high net worth demographic much more than a mass gathering.

Below is a table outlining the touch-points of a trade show alongside their digital equivalents.

Trade ShowDigital Equivalent
Walk-ups / ApptsSEM, SEO, Adwords
Touch and feel the productVR, AR, samples (postal)
Be first / select few to see new productsExclusive invite, access code, livestream reveal
Meet the designers / producersZoom meetings, walkarounds, Live Q&A’s
You come to usWe come to you (virtually)

Ask yourself – did any visitor to any venue, whether luxury or no, enjoy traipsing and queuing alongside other people? Luxury brands in industries such as Yachting and Real Estate try to manage this with carefully managed invitations and appointments, limited to the time and space allotted at a high price per minute and square foot. With digital alternatives, this aspect can be hidden so that every guest feels they are experiencing a private viewing while the brand enjoys a better economy of scale.

The digital equivalent of a walk-up is a consumer searching online for a specific brand, product or service. They are a bird in the hand, having already decided to be interested. If your brand hasn’t already, you should be gearing up your luxury SEO practice in 2021

Instead of touching and feeling a product in real life, digital experiences such as virtual reality, augmented reality, 360° tours and fly-throughs can deliver the next best thing. For a lower per-capita cost than your trade show, you could send the all-singing VR headset in the post, along with swatches and samples of the materials that build your product, supported by a virtual meeting to discuss specifics, for a very personalised customer experience.

To give your qualified prospects the feeling that they have been first, or one of only a select few, to see a product, you could invite them to an exclusive live reveal with password encryption. Of course one of the benefits of some luxury products and services is the networking potential with other customers, so you could even choose to build in networking opportunities for your very select invitees during the countdown to the live reveal.

In ultra-high-net-worth circles, many products are custom designed in collaboration with the customer, usually beginning with a ‘meet the designer’ moment at the brand headquarters or in a flagship showroom, where the consumer flies in via their helicopter. However, this is extremely carbon-heavy. It would be more sustainable, not to mention less time-consuming for the client, to send texture, colour and material references to the customers home, and hold the design meeting online or using a brand provided  home hologram machine.

If this all seems daunting, it shouldn’t – just as you would hire event furnishers to fit out your stand, you’ll hire digital specialists to help you run virtual trade shows and produce digital content. Here’s the secret – the brands who’ve successfully moved into this space have likely hired specialists and experts to help them produce. This means you can leave them to the digital crafting while you focus on your specialties, namely call to action, lead generation and funnel filling.

To summarise, trade shows are expensive and this year more than ever, there is a high risk of cancellation. Protect your efforts by bolstering your trade show plans with digital events and experiences that can complement the show if it goes ahead, or replace the show if it is cancelled at late notice. In 2021, look to VR, AR and Holographic content as well as ensuring you’ve covered the basics of SEO, digital tracking and HNWI targeting. The only certainty is uncertainty, and the only solution is digital. You may even be able to deliver a better experience for your customers, in which case you can re-distribute your future trade show budget into digital and potentially achieve a better cost per conversion than ever before. Should you choose to take this option, Relevance is here to help.

Reach out to our team to discuss digital redistribution for your luxury brand marketing budget.

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