May 16, 2011
Greening Up Trade Shows
By Michael D. Shaw
At first blush, the notion of trade shows seems quite difficult to reconcile with this current era of Internet-enhanced media. After all, these events are said to date from medieval times, and are even referenced in the Old Testament. (Implied in Ezekiel 27, with the word “fair” mentioned in the King James Version.)
The point being, of course, that absent mass communications, there was a real need for merchants and customers to get together—face-to-face—to do business, and introduce each other to new products and new requirements. With the advent of reliable mail service and the telephone, applications could be discussed, followed up with submissions of product literature and quotations.
With the mid-1980s came the wide availability of fax machines. Thus, documentary communications between buyer and seller became virtually instantaneous. As such, many marketers—and printing companies—wondered how much longer traditional product catalogs, let alone trade shows, would exist in their present form.
Once broadband Internet became the de facto standard in the early 2000s, Adobe’s pdf format enabled transmission of full-color catalogs, and so-called Web 2.0 enhancements provided interaction which certainly comes very close to being face-to-face with a sales rep. Some might argue that the interaction via computer (or smart phone) is even better in that the user can obtain just what he wants, minus the “amenities.”
Given all this, as well as the expense and overall hassle of travel these days, we could ask why trade shows still exist. A cynical answer is that they generate lots of revenue for the organizers, who are able to convince—or strong-arm—potential exhibitors into participating.
A kinder answer is to note that people with common interests still do enjoy congregating, especially in a festive venue—subject to the limitations of their travel budgets. Some argue that it is necessary to do deals and build relationships face-to-face.
Fair enough, but there is no denying the substantial environmental impact of trade shows. Consider the energy utilization and pollution caused by millions of people traveling, and the countless booths and materials being shipped. Consider also the paradoxical nature of the dozens of conferences held each year with the theme of protecting the environment.
So, what do we do?
Not surprisingly, most suggestions for greening up trade shows that come from the show organizers neglect any concepts that would limit attendance, and therefore ignore the associated travel-related environmental impacts. Instead, show management focuses on how the exhibitors can make a difference. Such ideas include:
- Using sustainable and lighter-weight materials in the construction of their booths
- Carefully determining how much literature and other items need to be brought to the show
- Eliminating most printed materials, in favor of electronic content
- Renting booths instead of building and shipping their own, thus reducing transportation-related impact
- Choosing more sustainable booth giveaways
In recent years, image-conscious exhibitors have eschewed the usual disposable “trinket” booth giveaways in favor of more practical items such as aluminum or stainless steel water bottles, USB drives, umbrellas, and quality baseball caps.
Entrepreneur Kimberly Martinez got into the trade show space with her line of boojee beads—a stylized version of the typically boring shoelace type lanyard, used with badge ID credentials. She told me that about 75 million women wear some form of lanyard ID, and the company’s first products were based on the needs of medical personnel.
A riff on their beaded lanyard line produced a series of conference credential lanyards, that can be used as eyeglass holders (or corporate ID holders) once the trade show is over. Contrast this with the halfhearted efforts of show organizers to recycle conventional lanyards, discarded by show attendees.
But surely, the best way to Green a trade show is to make it virtual. Almost every aspect of a conventional trade show can be replicated on line.
The show organizers can sell virtual booths to exhibitors, who staff the booths via such facilities as:
- Text chat
- Video chat
- Group chat
- E-mail and business-card exchange
- Message forums
Leading vendor INXPO touts the advantages…
While businesses in general will obviously gain from the use of these Virtual Events, the benefits to the population as a whole cannot be overlooked. We believe this reduction in travel will improve the overall quality of travel by removing the strain off an overburdened travel system. In addition, this reduction in travel will go a long way to reducing carbon emissions, thereby improving the overall environment.
Finally, small, regional trade shows—as opposed to gigantic national/international events—offer advantages in terms of creating a much smaller carbon footprint, and often outperform the mega-conventions.