Article by: Andreas Schulz of Baumer Ltd – Engineer, blogger and podcaster with a passion for Industry4.0 and AI.

Covid19 held up a relentless digital mirror to our society and showed us how well we are already digitised – or not. This became evident in schools, where some were able to switch operations directly to digital, but others struggled. It also became clear how well digitisation could work in companies. For some, the transition went smoothly – for others, business operations almost came to a standstill.

The virus and trade fairs

The coronavirus forced public events to a standstill. But suddenly there were alternatives – virtual trade fairs. Will we only visit trade fairs virtually in the future – or will this just be a short-term solution? The cancellation of the Hannover Messe 2020 was a severe blow for the automation industry. The fair is considered THE leading international fair, so it was good to see that there were many alternative offers in the week in which the HM20 should have taken place, for example from Universal Robots. It is certainly an unusual challenge to hold a trade fair virtually, but many companies have done it really well.

Mapping reality

There were manufacturers who had a conventional reception area with chat functionality, an auditorium with live presentations and corresponding stand areas where products were exhibited. By ensuring visitors registered, new contacts and sales opportunities were generated. A good overview in real time of who was watching which lecture and where was also possible. Using chat functionality, visitors could also enter into a dialogue with the experts. Many trade fairs were simply fun and made you want to see more.

Virtual bridge

Virtual trade fairs are certainly much more than just a static website. The trade fairs had significantly more dynamism and interaction than a conventional site. From a website point of view, a virtual trade fair can be a significant step forward. However, that also depends a little on the company’s current level of online commitment.

For companies that are already active in multimedia and across channels, the virtual trade fair does not represent a big step forward. When interested customers can already find extensive information on a website, including flyers, brochures and videos, and interactive offers such as webinars, using various channels to engage with the company, then the step up to a trade fair is relatively small.

Advantage or disadvantage?

The advantages of a virtual trade fair are obvious – the costs for the exhibitor are often only a fraction of the costs compared to a real trade fair. But virtual trade fairs also offer a great advantage for visitors – there are no time-consuming and costly journeys.

“I am overjoyed to see what has become of our idea to build a virtual Baumer booth and the global interest it has generated” said Jon Sumner, General Manager Baumer UK. Almost 6,500 people from over 80 countries around the world have already visited our trade fair at Industry Expo. “With the Industry Expo we have a great platform on which we can present our smart sensor portfolio 24×7 globally” said Karsten Just, Chief Marketing and Sales Officer Baumer.

This is a sizeable audience, but there are important factors to be considered, which are representative of the entire digitisation process. Communication via digital media is indisputably highly efficient – but it is also highly impersonal. Direct contact with a person is significantly different from meeting virtually, and involves all your senses. That is not the case with “zooming” or “Skype”. Talking to each other, looking at each other, seeing gestures and facial expressions as well as body language is a completely different experience. Communication in real life is much more spontaneous, more profound and complex.

Outlook

But where does the path lead us now? I am still happy to see these new virtual developments continue. In Germany, Corona shook us up from a digital point of view, but I hope that this will not remain a one-off, that people and companies will return to the time before Corona and once again be comfortable meeting in real life. But will virtual trade fairs prevail and replace real trade fairs? Or are we going back to conventional events?

I think that this is not about “either / or” but rather “as well as”.  Virtual trade fairs are an excellent addition and I see them as a bridge between classic communication channels and the real trade fair. Companies are expanding their digital websites more and more and are increasingly using multimedia. The goal must be to support interested customers with the right content throughout the entire buying process. The website is only one, albeit more important, channel. The key is to offer information to different groups in a targeted manner via a range of communication channels.

Andreas Schulz | anschulz@baumer.com | https://www.linkedin.com/in/ingversteher/