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International Trade Fairs Still Valuable Even in a Digital Age

By Philip Mavrikis

Despite how the increasing digitization of the global economy would seem to diminish the value of in-person events – not to mention the hassle of traveling overseas – events apparently still have importance for import-export businesses: international trade fairs and exhibits continue to grow in number and size.

Tapping Global Markets and Finding the Right International Trade Fair


Trade fair events have continued to grow over the past several years. According to the Center for Exhibition Industry Research’s (CEIR’s) 2018 Index Report, overall exhibition industry performance increased 2 percent in 2017 – which is double the 2016 growth rate.1 More companies are spending money on live events, venue capacities are expanding globally as investors predict the continued popularity of international trade shows, and event entry fees have risen as well, according to Trade Show News Network.2


Though many companies have shifted to selling their products digitally, CEIR’s 2018 ROI Playbook notes that professionals still find international trade fairs valuable for the ability to make long-term partnerships, meet clients, experts, and peers face to face, and gain key insights that give their business a competitive advantage.3 In a digital age where businesses have access to vast amounts of information, “business professionals look to resources they trust to determine what is real and what is fake. Business-to-business (B2B) exhibitions rise to the top in helping them achieve this,” says CEIR CEO Cathy Breden.4


One of the other main advantages to attending international trade fairs is the ability to assess the health and direction of the industry, as well as the strategies of competitors – CEIR surveyed 3,719 trade show attendees in April and May of 2018 and found that 87 percent of respondents claimed one of their “most important reasons for attending” was to “Keep up-to-date with industry/trends.”5


The major concern facing many small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) is getting a return on their investment as entrance fees for trade fairs continue to rise. Metrics such as the benefit of building trust, face-to-face relationships, or gaining industry insights can be hard to quantify. But, when surveyed by CEIR, businesses that plan on increasing trade show attendance in the next two years often cite networking/building relationships and meeting customers/potential customers among their main reasons.6 Some experts say a way to achieve higher ROI on trade fairs is to forgo major exhibitions in favor of smaller, targeted events, thus trading large attendance numbers for a higher percentage of people who are likely to be interested in an SME’s industry and products.7


New digital avenues have also been created to assist in international trade and help SMEs find the right trade fair. In October 2017, a public-private partnership called Getting to Global launched with the intention of helping small businesses access foreign trade markets. Google, Facebook, eBay, and others provide digital tools such as Google’s Market Finder Tool and Facebook IQ to assist in finding trade leads, trade fairs, and export assistance centers, while the U.S. Small Business Administration and U.S. Postal Service provide data and services.8 SMEs can utilize Google’s Market Finder to get recommendations on the best markets for their specific business, receive support in localization, international payments, and logistics, and learn how to advertise to a specific demographic globally.9


New Tools Assist with Trade Fair Customs, Transportation, and Logistics


New digital tools are also available to help with other traditional challenges to global trade fairs. For example, an expensive part of conducting foreign trade is dealing with customs procedures. Temporary customs waivers known as ATA Carnets exist to allow companies to bring certain goods into a country temporarily, with 87 countries currently participating.10,11 A new digital ATA Carnet project called Mercury II is in development by the World Chambers Federation and International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), and is expected to be live between October 2018 and March 2019.12 With a digital system like this in place, the ICC expects that travel and international transactions will be easier and participating in global trade fairs will be easier and more efficient.


When it comes to actual delivery of product overseas and on-site logistics at international trade shows, many companies provide specialist logistics services specific to trade fairs and events. These teams can provide shipping by road, rail, air, or sea, handle import/export formalities, and provide on-site operations at major venues, allowing the expertise of an outside company to assist SMEs.13


Some companies have also experimented with virtual trade shows or hybrid shows that combine a live event with online or virtual presence. Virtual-reality headsets at booths, motion-control technology, and smartphone interaction can all provide opportunities to boost engagement and make your exhibition stand out.14 However, experts say there still are drawbacks to fully virtual trade shows, including lower quality leads and lack of press coverage; meanwhile, it is still relatively expensive to arrange and coordinate the technology for virtual event participation.15


International trade fairs still present a variety of challenges and costs, such as rising entrance fees, customs, and finding the right show. But research shows – and experts say – that the value often outweighs the costs, as international events provide unique opportunities for SMEs to connect with new clients and create trust. Many new digital tools are emerging to assist SMEs in overcoming the challenges of finding and setting up an overseas trade fair.

Philip Mavrikis - The Author

The Author

Philip Mavrikis

Philip Mavrikis is a business technology writer based in Troy, NY, whose work focuses primarily on financial services technology.


1. “2018 CEIR Index Report Now Available,” Center for Exhibition Industry Research;
2. “UFI’s 5 Trends to Watch in 2018,” Trade Show News Network;
3. “2018 Attendee ROI Playbook Fact Sheet One: Decision to Attend and Factors Driving Attendee ROI/Value,” Center for Exhibition Industry Research;
4. “2018 Attendee ROI Playbook Fact Sheet Two: B2B Exhibitions Top-ranked for Value in Meeting Business Information & Purchasing Decision Needs,” Center for Exhibition Industry Research;
5. “2018 Attendee ROI Playbook Fact Sheet One: Decision to Attend and Factors Driving Attendee ROI/Value,” Center for Exhibition Industry Research;
6. “2018 Attendee ROI Playbook Fact Sheet Four: Attendance Today and 2019-2020 Outlook,” Center for Exhibition Industry Research;
7. “Where is the Value in Attending Trade Shows & Exhibitions?,” Business2Community;
8. “Getting to Global is Officially Launched!,” Getting to Global;
9. “Market Finder,” Think With Google;
10. “What is an ATA carnet?,” U.S. Customs and Border Protection;
11. “Carnet Countries,” Boomerang Carnets;
12. “ATA Carnet steps into the digital age with new pilot project,” International Chamber of Commerce;
13. “DHL Trade Fairs & Events: Logistics: Your Exhibition Needs,” DHL Freight;
14. “Eight Ways Interactive Technology Can Boost ROI From Your Trade Shows,” Entrepreneur;
15. “Are Virtual Trade Shows Becoming a Reality?" SmartSource;

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