With interest waning and numbers deteriorating, what can the industry do to bring a buzz back to trade shows?
As the Drapers team prepared for the autumn 16 show season back in January there was one debate that kept cropping up in conversation – are trade fairs still relevant? We decided to investigate this over the coming months by asking people from across the industry their views and opinions on the state of exhibitions and how they should evolve in order to remain relevant and successful.
We reported on this from international shows including Florence’s Pitti Uomo, Panorama, Seek, Premium, Bright and Show and Order in Berlin, Milan’s Micam and CIFF and Revolver in Copenhagen, as well as Pure London, Moda, WeAr Select London, London Edge and two editions of Scoop in the UK.
At these varied exhibitions and other events we asked brands, buyers, agents and industry insiders their thoughts, which we published each week.
There were positives and negatives and arguments for and against. We saw a growing reliance on showrooms over shows, and a trend for smaller pop-ups and travelling showrooms gaining traction. Many blamed the fall in interest in exhibitions on the internet and its easy access to brands. One agent said most of her new business comes via Instagram nowadays, while another revealed he had even replaced face-to-face buying appointments with Skype calls.
However, the overriding conclusion was that trade shows are still an important element of the industry and will, in one guise or another, continue to be so. Yes, they can be expensive and time consuming for exhibitors, but they can also be one of the best ways to introduce brands to the market. They are a great platform to show off the latest collections and innovations, or to find fresh product to delight your customers, in an environment where you can touch and feel fabrics and fits. Where else can you make connections with people you would not normally encounter or strengthen relationships with contacts you cannot see regularly? And all this is concentrated under one roof.
Despite these benefits, our debate concluded that something must be done to update and re-energise the current schedule – whether that is a small refresh or a total reinvention. Here we tackle some of the issues raised by our trade show debate and take a look at some emerging exhibition trends that suggest new directions that could help bring a spark back to the trade fair calendar.
The digital possibilities
Panorama’s virtual trade show
The potential of digital platforms to transform traditional trade shows could be a key focus for the future, acting as a valuable addition to the physical events that are surprisingly behind the times in harnessing the power of online. For example, Berlin’s Panorama trade show launched its first virtual edition for the autumn 16 season, using 3D photo mapping of its halls to allow buyers to virtually visit the show, gaining digital access to more than 700 brands collections and information. Panorama managing director Jörg Wichmann believes this allows the trade show to ”keep its doors open” on a “24/7 basis [once the physical show has finished], thereby creating added value for both visitors and exhibitors”.
WeAr Select London, which launched in January, proposes a similar digital future with online platform WeAr Select Digital.
“The digital element is far more important than the physical one,” believes show organiser Shamin Vogel. “Our vision is to get the show to the buyers [digitally] because buyers don’t tend to come to every trade show any more, because of costs, security concerns and time issues. Brands, however, have to sell globally. The only way to get the job done is to create a relevant, edited, digital, global fair. Our goal is to revolutionise the entire way brands [connect] with buyers and that will be done with a digital platform.”
Digital wholesale platforms could push this a step further by replacing the physical show concept altogether.
“Travelling to trade shows to do business, relying on samples and a fixed number of ordering cycles, communicating orders and business terms on fax, emails or paper and using outdated technology systems are all processes that belong to the past,” argues Ivan Herjavec, CEO of digital wholesale platform Buying Show, which launched this year. “While there have been huge advances and technology improvements in the consumer retail space, wholesale has stayed fairly unchanged. Buying Show makes it easy for brands and retailers to network with each other and do business, acting as a year-round, 24/7 digital trade show.”
Unlike the platforms of Panorama and WeAr Select, Buying Show allows brands to create fully transactional digital showrooms online, so buyers can browse and place orders directly. Could the internet replace physical trade shows in an industry in which fabric and fit are so important, and networking is still key?
“Touching and feeling are more relevant and important to the end customers in the consumer retail industry. Even there, many successful online businesses have proven that online shopping indeed works and the lack of physical touch is not a barrier to success,” asserts Herjavec. “However, the existing trade shows still bring immense value and will continue to play a role in the wholesale business. They will be complemented by digital platforms like Buying Show, which will enable actual commerce and data exchange. Together, the offline trade shows and new digital platforms will transform the industry in the coming years.”
An edited attitude
One of the biggest complaints Drapers heard when conducting our recent trade show survey was the sheer scale of some shows – they were often packed with an overwhelming number of collections spread over too many days with changing date lines. For example, Berlin’s three-day Panorama event spans more than 450,000 sq ft, while the city’s Premium show features nearly 1,000 labels exhibiting under one roof. Furthermore, London show Scoop, which now has two editions per season, for autumn 16 fell on different dates to the city’s other key show, Pure London, so out-of-town buyers may have had to make three trips to London. Could smaller, shorter, tightly edited trade shows therefore offer a better future?
“It’s really confusing about which shows buyers should attend,” says Lucy Walsh, founder of sales agency The Brand Ambassadors. “For example, the three London womenswear shows were all on different date lines last season. Buyers don’t have the budget to come to London three times and are confused about which they should go to.” Walsh suggests more shows should agree on dates, like they now do in Berlin and Copenhagen: “There would be more reason for buyers to come and they would probably stay for longer and then do the showrooms too. As it is the exhibition landscape is really fragmented, and it’s getting buyers and brands really annoyed.”
WeAr Select, which launched in London in January to coincide with London Collections Men, decided to tackle this issue. It kept the scale of the show small and tightly edited in a two-day schedule. Brands were restricted to exhibiting a maximum of 35 pieces.
“The current situation of trade shows is not sustainable in our opinion,” says show organiser Shamin Vogel. “It’s impossible for buyers to look through thousands of brands showing hundreds of items. Our concept to show no more than 35 key items was designed so buyers get an impression within a second about what the brand is all about. It’s been designed to ease the customer experience while giving smaller brands the same chance to be seen that big brands have. It also helps to bring costs down, as bigger stands are no longer necessary, and neither are huge transport and set-up costs.”
While this does help edit the overwhelming amount of product on display at some trade shows, some might argue that this approach leaves buyers needing additional appointments and showroom visits to see the collection in its entirety and confirm orders.
“This was precisely what we intended to do,” says Vogel. “Once they get the [impression] of a brand, we encourage buyers to contact the relevant showrooms and get the full picture with all the time in the world – not rushed in limited time at a trade show.”
Ripe for a refresh
Back in the glory days of Berlin’s Bread & Butter, brands competed for the biggest, brightest and buzziest stands. While the tera of extravagant, over-the-top trade shows is past, replaced by much humbler step-ups or even the strict show-wide uniform approach of Jacket Required in London and Seek in Berlin, the classic trade show format remains unchanged and uninspiring. Would a rethink of trade fairs’ look and layout breathe life back into the dull show schedule and persuade more buyers to attend?
There are some exhibitions that are beginning to rethink these trade show traditions. London’s Scoop show, for example, takes over the Saatchi Gallery four times a year and this unexpected setting is probably the shows’ most talked about and complimented element – certainly a refreshing change to the standard conference hall or vast warehouse venues the industry has come to expect.
Kristian Andersen, fashion and design director of Copenhagen trade show CIFF, has bought a buzz back to the Danish show by shaking up its look and layout. Easily the most attractive show visually, high quality fixtures and fittings are used for stands and large amounts of space are given to each brand, creating a much more considered atmosphere thanks to this elevated approach. CIFF’s Raven Projects show, launched in collaboration with the founder of London concept store LN-CC John Skelton, pushed this approach even further. Looking nothing like a trade show, Raven Projects blends the relaxed, spacious mood of a showroom with the inspiring feel of an actual retail space-cum-concept store.
“A lot of times you see either very curated small shows, or independent showrooms. At CIFF Raven it was important to run a conceptual [trade] show with a concept store or showroom feeling in order to bring very creative and talented minds from around the world to a [trade] show – and not a showroom,” explains Andersen.
The reaction from both exhibiting brands and visiting buyers has been hugely positive, with both groups telling Drapers they found the new format refreshingly exciting. Many praised CIFF’s approach for creating a space that made them look at the collections in a new way, rather than simply browsing boring rails on similar stands. Another positive was that this elevated setting “reflected the massive work the designers have done creating their collections”, as Andersen says, rather than the predictable and unconsidered layouts we have come to expect.
“The trade show platform format is still important and vital for the industry but it must be extremely relevant,” argues Andersen. “Create unique experiences in settings that match what brands and buyers expect of a business in 2016. If you [do this], I believe the trade show industry has an important and continuous role as a personal meeting platform in an industry where designs, innovation, quality and fabrics are still king.”
Focus on newness
When visiting trade shows this season, one buyer told Drapers: “You are hard pushed to find a new brand [at exhibitions nowadays]. If you’re a good buyer you’ll already know about them [all].”
If that is the case, it is understandable that fewer buyers are making the effort to attend shows, as they are already familiar with exhibitors and would already have relationships with the brands they are interested in. Should trade fair organisers be putting more effort into surprising buyers with new and interesting labels?
While it might be a difficult task to support an entire trade show on only new brands, more events could focus prominent areas of space on emerging labels to inspire and surprise visitors and give buyers more incentive to attend.
“Often you see new and emerging talents in a secondary area at trade shows and often with limited space. I find that a very arrogant attitude from many organisers,” argues Danish trade show CIFF’s fashion and design director, Kristian Andersen. “Everybody in fashion is focused on the next new brand or designer, but it takes a lot of time, money and energy to make a real difference. With [CIFF’s offshoot show] Raven, we try to give our best share of this vital support.”
In fact, the entire CIFF show has been reorganised over recent seasons so the main entrance pushes every visitor through the large hall dedicated to new and emerging brands first, before entering the areas filled with the more established labels – the opposite approach to most trade fairs, where new brands are pushed to the back.
One recurring view in our trade show debate was that fairs have shifted to becoming a purely social and networking opportunity. One brand’s export manager, who exhibited at the London, Berlin and Copenhagen shows, said for him trade shows were purely a social platform. This means that for many the transactional element of shows has shifted, with very few orders written on stands. In fact, one large denim brand showing at Seek in Berlin revealed that it did not even bother making sales appointments with buyers any more. Maybe show organisers could amplify the social aspects, and add meeting and networking opportunities. CIFF in Copenhagen, for example, held a series of talks and seminars. Shows could also offer access to usually costly trend forecasting data.
“Trade shows will still stay relevant but will evolve into new formats that will be shorter in duration and more focused on networking, education and information exchange,” predicts Ivan Herjavec, CEO of digital wholesale platform Buying Show.