Among the many lessons learned, COVID lockdowns taught us that digital won’t replace in-person trade shows. North America’s biggest ag shows are open again, and exhibitors and guests are flocking back at near-record numbers.
Because, let’s face it — you can’t replicate online the feel of sitting in a new tractor cab, talking face-to-face with a company rep, or the taste of a greasy trade show burger.
“Trade Shows are what I live for,” says Rob O’Connor, show director of Glacier’s Ag in Motion in Langham, SK. “I’ve been in this event business for a long time. There’s no other medium where you can generate a real response in sales. Trade shows augment print and digital. You can use it as part of a strategy to get out to your target audience.”
Pent-up demand will generate a surge of participation at in-person events
Producers, it seems, want to get back to touching new equipment, seeing technology demonstrations, and kibitzing in the beer tent with neighbours. In July 2019, the last Ag in Motion before COVID lockdowns, the site in Langham, SK, saw 30,000 visitors over three days and roughly 540 exhibitors. Based on online ticket sales and exhibitor registrations, O’Connor expects this year’s Ag in Motion numbers to meet or exceed 2019’s stats.
“People like to gather,” says Don Tourte, Vice President, Market Leader at Penton, Farm Progress. The Farm Progress Show is in Decatur, Illinois, at the end of August. In 2021, attendance at Farm Progress was down 20% compared to pre-covid numbers. This year, Tourte expects a full rebound.
“We have our base of exhibitors and visitors that have been at our shows forever,” says Tourte. “This year, we’re seeing those exhibitors plus a lot of new exhibitors in autonomous farming that we’ve never seen before. And carbon capture is another growing segment for us.”
Exhibitors are keen to connect with customers. In the past, event sponsors just wanted to make their name and logo more visible around the site. O’Connor says that at AIM, sponsors want more.
“This year, sponsors want to be part of anything that gets people interacting with them face-to-face,” says O’Connor. “We’ve worked with exhibitors to come up with new and inventive ways to provoke interaction. We have about 55 events happening at AIM sponsors’ booths this year.”
One equipment manufacturer is going all-in. They’re filling a tractor cab with balls. Whoever guesses closest to the number of balls in the cabs wins the tractor. At another booth, FMC, the crop protection company, is serving free drinks at the #FMCwateringhole at their booth every day around lunch hour.
Pivoting to digital had its challenges but did create some positive results
Like most of us, trade show operators had to adjust after March 2020. Ag in Motion launched a digital trade show when it became clear they wouldn’t host an in-person show on-site. The first year, they had 8,800 attendees online over six days. But soon, the bloom was off online meetings. The second-year numbers were way down for their online trade show; companies had found other ways to connect outside of Zoom meetings.
Tourte says that while numbers were down at the Farm Progress Show during COVID, that wasn’t necessarily the worst thing for exhibitors. Although attendance numbers dropped, the quality of the prospects visiting the booths went way up.
“At a big show, exhibitors can feel overwhelmed, sorting through the immense number of people,” says Tourte. “The right people are at a large show; it just takes more work to sort them out.”
There’s one good thing that accelerated due to COVID — online ticket sales. “We’ve seen online ticket sales for years in the concert industry, but ag trade shows have normally been cash at the gate,” says O’Connor. “We’ve seen a faster adoption of electronic tickets than there would have been otherwise.”
Sending tickets to exhibitors is much easier now that everything is electronic. In the past, show organizers had to stuff envelopes with tickets for exhibitors, and there were always last-minute requests. Those are easily handled online now.
It feels like we’re all hungry for social interaction after having been starved of human connection for two years. Consider visiting an ag trade show this year for a boost. We promise you won’t be alone.