Trade Fairs In A World Of Online Marketplaces [Podcast Ep10]


This episode (and the next few episodes) of the GlobalTQM podcast will share segments of a joint-webinar I hosted with Tom Pirenne of ShowSourcing.

To give you a concise description, ShowSourcing is a “social media” app for buying teams and manufacturers to collaborate. They’re a Belgian startup.

Tom is based in Hong Kong and responsible for the sales and customer support and business development in the APEC region.

A few weeks ago, Tom and I were having coffee and he asked me:

“Will Trade Fairs exist in the future?”

I admit I hadn’t really thought about it, so it prompted a good discussion.

That’s what I hope we can convey to you today.

I’ve been doing business in China 20+ years, so I really believe trade fairs will be around for a very long time, and that they’re the best way to build long-term relationships with quality suppliers and manufacturers.

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10 Reasons why Trade Fairs aren’t going anywhere

  1. Trade fairs come with significant added value over marketplaces (even the giants like Amazon and Alibaba.)
  2. Face-to-face interactions with manufacturers beats any other form of communication.
  3. You can have lengthy discussions with dozens of suppliers to get all the information you need, whereas a long email may go unanswered or get a low-quality response.
  4. Manufacturers debut their latest designs, ideas, etc. at trade fairs.
  5. You get to inspect hundreds of products in person.
  6. You can take advantage of peer support and networking with like-minded business owners and manufacturers that goes on at trade fairs.
  7. Attending a trade fair lets you focus complete on product research and development for 2 to 3 days…you’ll get much more done in a shorter time than if you did the same activities online.
  8. Being at the trade fair, walking around the booths, talking to people, checking out the products…all of these inspire you and give you great ideas for your business and products.
  9. Building business relationships after the trade fair is much easier because the initial interactions getting to know each other are out of the way and you can get straight to business.
  10. Suppliers and manufacturers will be much more open to talking to you via WeChat and Skype, and generally more generous with their time, because you’ve taken the time to meet and get to know them.



I think we should give a little bit more information about why this question came up into my mind. And I’m definitely not the only one because you read so much about it. It’s because there are so many online marketplaces nowadays like Alibaba, for example, and these are kind of views or some people think they can use them as a trade fair as well, and just buy all the products online and not go to a trade fair. Or that they can replace a trade fair. My question was, (of course nowadays that’s not the case because there are still a lot of trade fairs) will these marketplaces in the future take over the role of trade fairs because there will be no use anymore for the trade fairs. And I started thinking about it and at first, I thought, “why not?”, because it’s just really easy. But fairly quickly I realized and I’m pretty confident that they won’t replace the trade shows because there is so much added value to trade fairs. There are so many things they still offer that an online marketplace doesn’t offer.

I don’t want to say that these online marketplaces are useless because they are great tools and of course that’s why they are so big. E.g. the Amazons and AliBabas of this world, because we all know they are the biggest companies in the world. But trade show will definitely keep existing in my opinion. And let’s try to give some reasons why a trade show has a lot of added value.

David Hoffmann:

Well, I made some points in response to your question. Let me run through them quickly. Here’s I think why trade shows are so valuable.

First one is face-to-face discussion versus emails. I just don’t think that you can ever replace a face-to-face conversation that you have with somebody with an email exchange. You just don’t get the same speed of response. You don’t build any kind of feeling or instinct towards the people you’re dealing with and I think that’s so important. We speak a lot about building relationships with suppliers and I see email as a communication tool where you can ask one or two questions and get one or two answers. The minute you try and send a long email to a supplier, you very rarely get a comprehensive response. Face-to-face, you can have lengthy conversations and get so much information out of it. It’ll just never, ever be able to be done electronically in my view.

The other really important thing of trade shows is you just see so many new ideas. No manufacturer or supplier who has great new ideas, new designs, and new stuff, is going to post them online as a first starting point in a marketplace. They’ll present them at trade shows. They’ll show that to their best customers. They’ll want to stand out from the crowd. They don’t want to be copied that quickly. And it’s not just their ideas, it’s that you get new ideas walking around a trade show. I mean, I’m yet to find somebody that doesn’t just come back from a trade show and say, wow, I’ve just found so many great ideas, so many great products, so many opportunities.

You’ll never get that from an online experience. Trade shows just give you that. And they also give you the ability to look at a product, touch a product and feel a product. And that is why we do the whole sampling process right? Is because we know that when we find something we’re interested in, we still let you look at it, see it, touch it, feel it, use it. And at a trade fair you can do a lot of that stuff straight away with hundreds of suppliers, not just one.


Yeah, that’s such a valid point, to look, touch and feel. It’s simple, but it’s so hard to judge the quality of a product by a picture online. Because you can take any product and of course you see the product but it’s very hard to judge the quality. And of course, I don’t think you can perform a full quality control process on a trade show, not at all. But you can have the first impression of the quality of a product. Especially if we have some moving parts, you can touch it, you can feel the quality of the plastic or whichever material it’s made of, and that’s such a big advantage. You immediately know if this the product you want to investigate further or not.

David Hoffmann:

Exactly, and that just saves so much time in my view. And just the trust you build with that face-to-face communication, it’s invaluable. I think what’s also sometimes overlooked, and it’s one of the points I’ve put down here is, trade shows also offer that peer and group support that you don’t get if you’re sitting online looking for products. Just walking around, sitting and having coffee, joining some sessions or some keynote talks. You meet peers in your industry that you get to speak to, share experiences and that kind of gives you confidence and motivation, which is so important. And just support. You can share problems, ideas, issues, and get feedback of people who have similar experiences on how they solve things. I think peer and group support is really, really important and trade shows provide a good platform for that as well.


Yeah, I definitely agree. And a trade show is so much more than just suppliers exhibiting. As you said there are so many talks, business seminars, around or at the trade show, even the days before or the days after. At night in the hotels, people are socializing. It’s so much more than business. And it’s really important to build or strengthen your relationships and build up your network, because it’s all about having a network.

David Hoffmann:

You’re so right. And I think the other thing a trade show adds so much value is, if you just think about the time it takes to email one supplier, discuss a product, discuss all your questions, get the samples up and down, and you’re doing this online in between other things you’re doing, it’s easy to get distracted. Now if you take the amount of time that takes, you can do that in a two-, three-day show period of time. You can do that with 20, 30, 40 suppliers face to face, get immediate answers, resolve so many problems and you’ve got two, three days of intense focus. It’s invaluable. I just don’t think it can ever, ever fade away, a trade show.

And in particular to find those products, when you got a relationship with your supplier, you’re going to see new ideas. And Tom, it’s not just new product ideas…you walk around the booths and stands, you get theme ideas, color palette ideas. You see trends that are going on. You just get so much inspiration and I think we all know that inspiration, no matter what the source is, you can build into your products, into your product range, into your product lineup and see what others are doing. And to get that done, it’s all of that done in three days as opposed to weeks or months of work online. To me, you just can never ever see them going away.


No, I completely agree. I completely agree with these inspirations as well. You can walk by the booths of a supplier that’s selling products that are completely not in your interest, but you can maybe see that in that booth a nice color of a completely different product and send a picture of that and say that color I can use for my products, I’m developing. That’s now exactly the product or the color I’m looking for. It can be anywhere else as well, but it’s so important that you get surrounded by all this inspiration.

I think in an online marketplace, it’s what-you-see-is-what-you-get. Or the products you can find are the products you can get. But with the supplier, you can talk. You can’t do that with a supplier on an online marketplace. But it’s a lot harder to find these details to start communicating with them on a trade show where you can immediately ask him what would be the possibility?

David Hoffmann:

Even trying to convince a supplier to cooperate with you and understand the limitations, a conversation is just the best way. And the other thing not to overlook is all that email communication or online communication is so much easier when you’ve met a person face-to-face. It’s based on relationships. So, it’s instinct. If you got a good relationship with the supplier and they seem to like you and you relate to each other, it’s so much easier to have a face-to-face conversation and a conversation online after that. It makes it so much easier. Yeah.


We all know what it’s like a having to email someone, “Dear Sir” or “Dear Madam,” “Dear Mr.” Or being able to address someone with his right name, having spoken with him. So you just put a face on the people you are mailing and he will be able to do the same when he’s receiving the email. It’s so much different then when people reply. And as you say, if you have spoken before you can get to the point straight away. You can ask simple questions and you don’t have to send these long emails that people don’t read. That’s something we want to cut down. The excessive amounts of, I want to say useless…but there are so many emails sent around that we have to be efficient. And I think you can be much more efficient if you know someone in person because you can talk, hit the subject straight away and talk about what you want to talk to him about.

David Hoffmann:

Yeah exactly, and even just being able to communicate through WeChat or WhatsApp or just call somebody up on Skype and have a quick conversation about something is 10 times easier when you’ve met them once or twice and you’ve gotten over the little formalities. And you can just say hey Tom, quick question. Can we hop on Skype for a minute? I want to know this. I want to know that, or I’ll share my screen with you and show you this.


It just really shortens that whole communication, it’s-

David Hoffmann:

And I’ll say we’re unanimous Tom, treasures are not going anywhere.


Perfect, luckily we agree on that.

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