Stephan Forseilles: Is the events and meetings industry ready to reinvent itself with technology to stay relevant in the digital age?
When I ‘emigrated’ to the exhibition industry, coming from the telecoms 15 years ago, I didn’t expect such a strange landscape. Who are my clients? Are they the exhibitors? The visitors? Or are they my product? Do I sell visitors to exhibitors, or the opposite? Do I sell speakers to attendees or is it the other way around? On top of that, I have to reinvent my product every year when some industries enjoy decade-long products lifecycles.
And then there’s the technology. Beside the usual CRM, ERP, Accounting systems and web sites, there are all those specialized software packages for things like registration, access control, match making, online catalogues and interactive floor plans. And all this scattered across a very fragmented suppliers landscape with no leading vendors.
Also, there is no standard platforms. Freeman’s Fuzion is the first serious attempt at creating a common language, but it only appeared last year. There are some suppliers trying to cover a large part of the “exhibition applications specter” like Expoplatform but, mostly, we’re condemned to work hard on integrating many systems from different vendors.
What does that mean for our industry? Does this make us less innovative and more prone to being ‘disrupted’?
Whenever I ask this question to people from the exhibition industry through my activities for the UFI (the international association of tradeshow organizers, http://www.ufi.org ) I get mixed answers. There’s always a part of the room which thinks that what happened to libraries, taxis, record companies, television and hotels cannot happen to us. “People will always want to meet face-to-face!” is the main argument.
But that’s missing the point. My main concern is that we are still providing an outdated customer experience. It takes filling up 4 fields to register for an Amazon account that I will use almost daily for years while I often have to answer 5 or 6 pages of questions to register online for a trade show that I will visit for a couple of hours. We still have queues at the entrance when Amazon is rolling out stores without cash desks: take what you want and just walk out! And don’t get me started on bad wi-fi or lousy catering in venues. Bad experiences.
There are very few barriers to entry for newcomers who would want to turn our industry upside down. Our brands? The Millennials generation couldn’t care less about brands, they’re all about the experience. Systems? Everything is cloud-based, almost free to start with and pay-as-you-go. See registration (Eventbrite), digital marketing (Mailchimp, Feathr, Gleanin…), CRM (Hubspot, Zoho or even Salesforce), match making (Grip)… With GDPR and social marketing our previous prospection databases have also lost a big chunk of their value. We have venues? That’s what hotels thought before AirBnB arrived. We already see AirBnB-like services for meeting space rental, like Breather. And with the ‘Promotions’ and ‘Other’ tabs, Google and Microsoft have pretty much killed email marketing.
So, in my opinion, yes, there is a danger for our industry to be disrupted by technology. But don’t take my word for it, let’s discuss it at Meetings & Events in Helsinki where I’ll be digging deeper into that topic on the 4th of September!
Head of Technology and Digital Marketing