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Exhibitions As The Most Effective Marketing Tool For SMEs Exhibitions, though founded on the low-tech principles of meeting face-to-face, offer tremendous scope to create a unique marketing experience.

By Omar Rahman

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The world has never moved more quickly and that presents unique challenges in how businesses attract and interact with potential customers. Every year, marketing directors are presented with a new suite of tools for reaching their customers, who in turn are constantly adopting new media, new habits and new expectations. So, the race to refine, segment, personalize and engage intensifies.

Exhibitions, though founded on the low-tech principles of seeing with your own eyes and meeting face-to-face, offer tremendous scope to embrace the pace of change and create a marketing experience that is second to none. In this article, I will set out the major changes that I see shaping tomorrow's exhibition industry, so you can begin to plan your exhibition strategy to make the most of what's coming.

7 trends for UAE exhibitors
Here are the most significant changes coming to the UAE exhibitions industry– and why smart exhibitors will find a way to integrate them to increase return on investment.

New tech everywhere
Today's innovative technology, including artificial intelligence (AI) and augmented reality (AR), will become all-pervading. The UAE has always prioritized innovation and many businesses are in the early stages of exploration with AI and AR, figuring out how they can add value to their existing products and services. In a few years these technologies will be commonplace, making every element of the exhibition experience smoother, faster and more personal. For both startups and large businesses, adapting quickly to this change and embracing new ideas will be central to continued success in the exhibition space.

Sustainability prioritized
Every facet of the exhibition landscape will incorporate sustainable values. Sustainability is already a topic close to the UAE's heart, being a key national priority as part of Vision 2021. Two quick examples: Dubai's now mandatory green buildings regulations and specifications reflect this commitment while Abu Dhabi's ambitious Estidama program is a sustainability framework governing new building developments.

Expo2020 reinforces this ethos by introducing sustainability as a key theme– and, in so doing, offers a glimpse into the future for UAE exhibitors. The best example comes from the planned Sustainability Pavilion, playing a major role in the Expo, acting as "an example of what really can be done in even the harsh environment of the desert, where it's hot and there's a shortage of water'. One of the world's first applications of this technology at scale, the Pavilion will harvest most of its energy from the sun and atmosphere.

For your future exhibitions these ideals may soon become standard- they will become tomorrow's everyday realities, with big and small companies inspired towards more sustainable practices. Accordingly, no feature of the exhibition landscape will remain untouched by the ethos of sustainability.

Engagement redefined
How your business reaches and engages with consumers will change. Today's consumers are dramatically different from those of 100 years ago, in terms of how and why they pay attention to things, why they buy and what they expect when they do. This is how US advisory firm Gartner puts it: "Today, like it or not, Apple and Amazon and Uber and so many others have conditioned your customers to expect more– often more than you can readily deliver. Your customers have seen what great looks like."

That's happening today, and it will only be more dramatic in future. These shifts in technology and hyper-successful breakthrough brands have created a landscape where disruptive players can bring something radically new to marke – and fundamentally redefine consumer expectations in the process.

This has a profound implication for your business in the future. To compete, your business model will need to become more agile and stakeholders braver. To attract customers, your business will need to offer different, offer more. Focus on reputation, tradition and heritage will need to be countered by an embrace of change.

How you bring new products, services and attitudes to your consumer will change as well. Exhibitors will need to create a fast, fluid, personal exhibition experience that harnesses multiple channels in seamless combination. Certainly, I would expect to see a change in the "standard' exhibition format, with more businesses breaking the rules to create events that engage consumers in different and surprising ways.

Local and global
Global attendance will fuel growth of niche exhibitions. The UAE is already a major global events hub, with Dubai alone having attracted 15.8 million international visitors from across the globe in 2017, up 6% year-on-year. This growth trajectory is likely to continue as global travel becomes faster, cheaper and easier.

Attendees at today's small-to-medium exhibitions will notice the biggest change, as even niche exhibitions see global attendees making the trip. Overall this global growth is likely to fuel an increase in the number and scale of exhibitions in every sector, as demand escalates. As an exhibitor, you will find this global attendee base translating into a more global customer base and that will introduce a host of new priorities in terms of product development, marketing and sales.

Security concerns will impact on the way you organize and manage exhibitions, in every sector. Transport providers, governments and venues will have an important role to play but exhibiting brands too will need to put attendee security front of mind. Cyber-security, as well as real-world security, will play an ever-increasing role.

Hybrid strategies
Lines will blur between previously distinct channels. There has been a movement away from distinct, single channel outreach for a few years now and this should continue. Linking back to shifting customer expectations, there is an increased demand for your brand to connect holistically with their customers, using technology and big data as facilitators.

You should expect to diversify your event strategy, interconnecting multiple media into a seamless whole. As Kai Hattendorf writes for Exhibition World, "The blurring of the lines between historically separate event formats like exhibitions, congresses and conferences… will continue and intensify." He goes on to talk about the implications of these "hybrid formats', writing, "As hybrid business events thrive, we will see more collaboration… between these new organizers."

As audiences, expectations and capabilities change, the most successful exhibitors will adapt by embracing unique collaboration opportunities. Those who actively seek these opportunities will offer a multi-dimensional experience that drives exhibition engagement on a global scale.

Pinpoint targeting
Exhibition targeting will become stronger as our data capabilities grow. The most effective exhibitions are those that attract the most appropriate audience– the audience who are best suited to engage with and buy from exhibitors. As our data capabilities reach new heights, our ability to target those people will only improve. This will mean you can attract more relevant –and therefore more engaged– exhibition attendees, even at an incredibly niche level.

As a result, exhibitors can expect better overall results from their exhibition spend, which is likely to lead to further budget increases as the medium proves more and more effective. Equally, this refined targeting will probably drive an increase in the number of niche exhibitions that can now easily find and attract their audience.

Exciting outlook for tomorrow's exhibitors
Tomorrow's exhibition landscape looks fairly different from today's. Changes in consumer expectations, a more global audience, and increased technical capabilities will mean brands can – and must – innovate in what they deliver and how they deliver it. To this end we will see more collaborations between non-traditional players, seeking to deliver a multi-dimensional experience for customers.

As the world becomes more "local', we will see global exhibition attendance increase, which in turn will create opportunities for more niche, specialist exhibitions to grow. Increased data capabilities will further reinforce this growth, allowing refined targeting for narrower propositions but on a larger scale.

I expect the exhibition sector to go from strength to strength. More exhibitions in more diverse formats in more diverse sectors and sub-sectors will become the norm. Tech, sustainability and security will be the main growth sectors but, whatever your industry, the outlook for UAE exhibitions looks positive.

A backdrop of disruption means businesses must prioritize innovation and embrace change. But when they do, the potential rewards from a larger, more engaged audience will be significant.

Related: Five Mistakes You May Be Making As An Exhibitor (And How You Can Correct Them)

Omar Rahman

Co-founder, TGP

Omar Rahman moved to the UAE from the UK in 1991 to take a business development position in the sales department of EMA Lubricants, a joint-venture with Exxon Mobil. In 1995, he teamed up with Alexander Maddock to launch Top Gear Promotions LLC – now known simply as TGP – an exhibitions and events solution provider, having executed over 2,000 successfully delivered projects locally, regionally and internationally, for organisations including Etihad, Dubai Holding, General Electric, Dubai Tourism, IPIC, Masdar, Qatar Airlines, Emaar, Expo 2020, and many more. Rahman studied Civil Engineering at the United Kingdom’s North East Surrey College of Technology.

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