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Virtual Trade Shows May Be the Next Best Thing For the Indian Industry During COVID The permanence of this virtual phenomenon is still debatable, as it is still being tried and tested

By Sandip Chhettri

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We could have only imagined that there will come a time when organizing virtual tradeshows will be viewed as an alternative to the large, crowded events usually hosted at enormous trade conventions. These developments are owed to the dwindling prospects for tradeshow organizers in hosting large public gatherings.

However, the permanence of this virtual phenomenon is still debatable, as it is still being tried and tested on the scale at which it is being recommended. As the COVID-19 pandemic's conclusion remains uncertain, organizers of tradeshows are seeking substitutes to the standard fare practices. They are now adopting other means to draw in businesses for participation, enticing them with a world of virtual possibilities. In that regard, the virtual tradeshow concept has been prevalent for a few decades now, while its relevance has magnified only due to the current times.

To those who are unfamiliar with the concept, virtual tradeshows cover all those aspects one can expect from a physical tradeshow. The kiosks and stalls are replaced by virtual ones, seminars are converted into webinars, advertising goes digital, group video calls take the place of in-person business meetings, online marketplaces enable swift decision making on purchases and participants are matched as per their business categories while being facilitated with web chat sessions to discuss business propositions.

A few industry voices are advocating for digitization to complement physical trade events, arguing that doing away with physical trade events on a permanent basis isn't a replicable and wise idea. Their assessment is that in-person meetings play a major role in building trust and relationships and that virtual shows can be a customized solution for current times, undertaken only on a temporary basis.

Nevertheless, the silver lining for many businesses during the pandemic is that the immediate fears of an international shutdown have transformed into an opportunity. "Desperate times call for desperate measures' goes the saying and the willingness of businesses to adapt to virtual shows is indicative of the international trade trajectory in the unforeseen future. Moreover, trade events have become expensive undertakings for many companies over these years, as it requires the physical presence of a designated team, transportation of products for display kiosks, accommodation, travel arrangements, and several other miscellaneous costs which recur every time a company decides to participate in a tradeshow. The costs are multiplied further if it happens to be an international event.

Small businesses have traditionally been a major part of tradeshows, as they consider these events to be a hotbed of B2B opportunities, wherein they get to network and interact with suppliers, potential customers, and industry experts all at one place. The COVID challenge has taken multiple dimensions, altering several pre-existing mechanisms of running a business. Starting from product purchase and payment gateways to supply chain logistics and product delivery, companies are confronted with the digitization conundrum, forcing them to repurpose their processes to stay relevant.

Going virtual could help companies with their post-pandemic austerity measures, as it could significantly bring down the costs for trade events while budgeting for business expansion. They could instead invest in upgrading their workplaces with state-of-the-art digital infrastructure and plan towards giving business visitors a peek into their products virtually. For instance, tradeshow organizers too could facilitate virtual reality experiences to engage with products, live relaying of visits to industrial facilities from remote locations, live keynote addresses of illustrious industry stalwarts and creation of a plethora of high-quality digital content that can reach across borders.

Furthermore, they could also package the trade fairs based on specific requirements and set pricing according to the preferred options, giving flexibility both to the organizer as well as the business. This could enable companies to be sector-specific and focus their energies solely on areas that pique their interest.
As we accelerate digitization in our country, newer avenues such as the virtual shows will open up opportunities for which both the government and industry need to prepare for. It would require deliberation and foresight on our part to create an enabling environment that allows small and medium enterprises time and space to adjust to these new realities and grow their businesses.

Product packaging and digitized promotion require the content of the highest order and maintaining such quality could pose a challenge to budding start-ups. However, incentives such as affordable access to virtual tradeshows could provide start-ups with the much-needed impetus to form relevant partnerships and break-out into both the international and domestic trade scene. India's lockdown and travel restrictions accentuated the challenge further, as tradeshows are expected to draw a large number of regional contingents hailing from different states.

Travel being risk-ridden, businesses themselves are reticent about their plans, even if it means losing out on trade possibilities at these events. Even if they were to be organized, they require enormous planning and manpower during COVID times, notwithstanding a whole host of other machinations that we attribute to tradeshows. It is therefore imperative for the Indian industry to see virtual tradeshows as a tremendous opportunity for home-based start-ups and small businesses, as they prepare to reinvigorate their plans post-pandemic.

Sandip Chhettri

COO, TradeIndia

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