The name, Tradeshows, expositions, scientific / technical conferences, conventions, may vary but the basic function of the activity represents a major industrial marketing event. They are “events that bring together, in a single location, a group of suppliers who set up physical exhibits of their products and services from a given industry or discipline”[i].   Tradeshows rank second behind only on-site selling in influencing buying decisions of industrial purchases[ii],[iii].

A tradeshow is an excellent place to learn about industry trends by observing who is exhibiting, the products and services they are promoting, the new products they are introducing, who else is attending the show (job functions and companies), and so on. Many companies send employees to tradeshows to gather intelligence about their competitors. You can pick up valuable information by keeping your eyes and ears open, speaking to a wide range of exhibitors and attendees, and absorbing what’s going on around you.

Tradeshows, meetings and events of all types are the primary venues where promotional products are given out to increase brand awareness, corporate recognition, or to remind recipients of the purpose of an organization. Promotional items distributed at these gatherings provide a long-lasting reminder of exhibitors’ message or marketing theme through repeated exposure of their logo and message. Tradeshows offer a strong opportunity to enhance brand recognition, launch new products, promote company, generate leads and drive sales. Meetings, whether intra-corporate or to an audience of potential clients require a different and generally more upscale group of promotional items to drive home the themes of vision, direction, creativity, or the benefits of more expensive products and services.

A tradeshow provides the opportunity for a producing company to display its products to many potential customers during a short period of time. With so many potential buyers at the same place, the tradeshow becomes a time-saving communication tool. This could be compared to a situation where the companies would have to meet each customer individually, which takes a lot more time and costs more.


  1. To understand the field of Tradeshows.
  2. To study the relevance of tradeshows in current market scenario.

Origin of Tradeshows

Tradeshows, also known as industrial exhibitions, have their roots in the ancient bazaars – vendors gathered in a central location to display their wares for prospective customers, who could conveniently learn about many sellers’ products in a short period of time. The history of tradeshows can be traced as far back to the era of King Herod, (73-4BC) when a fair was held in a 3,200 square feet exhibit hall where merchants were encouraged to display their riches and merchandise for the purpose of strengthening commerce and wealth within his empire. The concept has evolved over the centuries to a highly sophisticated event where exhibitors not only display their wares or examples of their services, but also develop new customers, build customer retention and electronically monitor the data collected at these events in order to continually enhance their marketing efforts[iv].

Tradeshows have had an important role in Europe since the 12th century. The goal of tradeshows has always been the same, to find customers, and to display and sell products (Popli, 1990) as the need to access wider world markets was crucial to the country’s survival as an industrialised nation[v].  Borrowing from neighbouring France, (who had been staging art exhibitions since 1667 and national trade exhibitions since 1798) the British under the leadership of Henry Cole, Joseph Paxton and Albert, Prince Consort, decided in 1849 that a trade exhibition was the only way to readily access world trading markets, creating the “Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations,” otherwise known as the Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851.

The Great Exhibition was the first international trade fair.  It was the ultimate example of a horizontal exhibition where a multitude of products and services in specific industry groupings as well as by country or geographic region were presented – not only to industrial users but to the general public as well.

A sudden increase in world and state fairs that were hosted throughout the United States from the late 1800s to the early 1900s played a significant role in the development of the exposition industry in the United States.  However, in many cases, the focus was international and outward – showcasing American products to the wider world.  Exhibiting at three, six month or even year long trade fairs was expensive and drained the fiscal and human resources of many firms.  The country was growing, markets were expanding westward. As business and industry become more and more sophisticated, they began to develop their own specialised tradeshows.  American manufacturers and wholesalers started using exhibitions to get their goods to the end-user.  Exhibiting locally manufactured goods in a temporary local or regional marketplace gained increasing popularity in the 1800s.

Trade exhibitions as a form of marketing had firmly established itself by the early 1900s.  The overall success of local, state, national and international fairs helped to create a foundation on which commercial trade exhibitions were able to build.  The general public, by the turn of the century, was used to seeing wares on display at exhibitions.  The addition of exhibits as get-together programs by associations added industrial end-users to the list of audiences that trade exhibits were serving.  The exposition as a direct form of marketing was here to stay![vi].

While today’s tradeshows are a bit less chaotic than those of ancient times, they can be overwhelming to both first-time visitors and seasoned veterans. With so many resources under one roof, a tradeshow is an efficient way for vendors to spend their limited time. In a matter of a day or two, vendors can make many face-to-face contacts, which are often more valuable than phone calls or e-mail for the exchange of technical information.

Impact of Tradeshow

The advantages of using a tradeshow include: a message delivered to a large number of interested people (86% of all show attendees represent a buying influence, are interested in a specific exhibited product or service and have not been called on lately by a sales representative); introduction of new products to a large number of people; uncovering potential customers; enhancing goodwill; and gaining free company publicity. Other advantages inherent in participating in tradeshows include noting that tradeshow activities can play a major part in vendor evaluation and recognition[vii] due to their personal selling process elements of (1) identifying prospects, (2) servicing current accounts, (3) introducing products, (4) improving corporate image, (5) gathering competitor information, and (6) selling[viii]. Tradeshows provide the opportunity to affect multiple phases of the industrial buying process in one location; they can create awareness in new prospects, reinforce existing customer relationships, provide product demonstrations for evaluation, establish relationships between vendors and prospects, and allow sales of products on the spot. Tradeshows significantly influence the industrial buying process during the need recognition and vendor evaluation stages of the purchase process[ix].

All too often, a substantial number of corporate marketing and management executives still perceive tradeshows as non-selling activities or social activities for those employees that do attend[x]. This poor opinion of tradeshows by executives is often acerbated by the fact that only 56 of firms participating in tradeshows have specific objectives before participating in a given show. Only 46 of companies set goals before they exhibit, half are wishy-washy and one-third of exhibitors do not set quantifiable objectives. Barely seventeen percent of all exhibitors provide their management executives with ROI data. Is it any wonder that many executives question the value of tradeshows?[xi]  This is partly due to the fact that substantive quantitative research on tradeshow effectiveness has yet to be done and many firms have failed to measure quantifiably the return on their tradeshow investment.

In the midst of tens of thousands of visitors among the thousand or so booths, the feeling exists that a company gets lost in the crowd. This problem is greatest at non-selling shows featuring complex products for which the buying decision usually involves several people. The buying process takes many months if not years, during which the role of the tradeshow is minimized or even totally overlooked[xii].

Other disadvantages with tradeshows include taking salespeople away from their territories; the crowded, confusing environment found in large shows, labour problems and unions, proliferation and excessive frequency of tradeshows, and a high proportion of sightseers. Some researchers have added unknown effectiveness on return per dollar spent, difficulty of measuring efficiency, high and rising costs of participation, and a growing feeling shows are boondoggles, perks[xiii].  With the fortunes companies spend on tradeshows, surprisingly little is spent on researching their effectiveness.

Exporters’ variation in revenue expenditure

Tradeshows are not always affordable for an exporter. The costs of a professional display, promotional materials (designed specifically for the target market), staff to manage it, shipping expenses and travel and accommodation are often beyond the reach of a new exporter. It is important to determine the importance of tradeshows for a particular export strategy. Depending on the product or service, the way in which an exporter wishes to make sales and the consumer patterns of the target market, tradeshows may not be critical to success.

If research and analysis indicate that tradeshows are a critical element of the export plan, then a budget is essential. This budget should be based on available resources as well as careful selection of events in which to participate. Fees include travel, event participation, shipping and clearing of any goods relating to your display and exhibit, export licenses, booth rental charges, accommodation, entertaining or secondary promotional activities (i.e. business dinners, “freebies”, samples) and communications to name a few. Additionally, all sales literature and marketing materials, including business cards, should be printed in the local language to enhance the exporter’s professional image. Finding the right show for a specific export strategy and a specific budget can be challenging. In the planning stage, exporters can look to Internet services like Tradeshow Central to find relevant events in target markets. Industry specific publications and trade journals frequently publish calendars of upcoming events and contain advertisements from tradeshow organisers.

Reasons for Tradeshows

The common reasons for exhibiting in tradeshows include (1) generating sales leads, (2) generating actual sales at the show, (3) enhancing your image and visibility, (4) reaching a specific audience, (5) establishing a presence in the marketplace, (6) improving the effectiveness and efficiency of your marketing efforts, (7) personally meeting your customers, competitors and suppliers, (8) prospecting for new customers, (9) introducing new products and services, (10) demonstrating your product in ways not possible through other marketing channels, (11) recruiting distributors or dealers, and (12) educating your target audience.

Relevance of tradeshows in current market scenario Role of Tradeshows

Tradeshows as Image Building Activities

The conceptual domain of the image-building dimension includes all activities related to building corporate image and reputation at the tradeshow. International tradeshows are large industry gatherings where one of the primary objectives for exhibiting is to create product interest and awareness. Another is the desire to build corporate image and reputation[xiv], [xv]. As a marketing communication tool, the advertising and display function (i.e., image-building activities) of tradeshows is the second behaviour-related dimension in the conceptual framework.

Tradeshows as Motivational Activities

It is suggested that in addition to the dimensions above, there is a behaviour-related motivation dimension as well. The conceptual domain of the motivation dimension includes all activities related maintaining and enhancing the motivation of company employees and of customers. The motivational aspect of tradeshow participation has not been emphasized in the existing tradeshow literature. Attendees at international tradeshows are given the opportunity to meet and interact with foreign customers and to visit a foreign country they may not have visited before. It is therefore suggested that one dimension of the tradeshow performance is that of motivation, at least at international tradeshows.

Tradeshows as Relationship-Building Activities

Among many dimensions of tradeshow performance framework, one dimension is that of relationship-building activities. The conceptual domain of the relationship-building dimension includes all activities related to maintaining and developing relationships with established customers and establishing relationships with new customers. Many researchers stressed the need for research into the value of tradeshows in the development of buyer-seller relationships and emphasized the significance of social exchange when there is spatial and cultural distance between the buyer and seller[xvi],[xvii].

This characterizes especially the buyers and sellers at international tradeshows. Many booths at European international tradeshows have their own conference rooms and lounges, and drinks and snacks are often served to visitors[xviii], which encourage visitors to spend significant amount of time in the booths they visit, thus lengthening interactions[xix]. Further, tradeshow attendees indicate a high degree of success in building relationships at the show. Several relationship-building variables are identified in the tradeshow literature.   These include:

  • maintaining and developing relationships with established customers[xx]
  • establishing relationships with new customers[xxi]
  • the opportunity to meet key decision makers who are otherwise inaccessible[xxii] and,
  • accomplishing personal contact with customers[xxiii].

However, the development of buyer-seller relationships in industrial markets is a process often described in five stages. They are: pre-relationship stage, through the early stage, the development stage, the long-term stage, to the final stage. This process goes beyond the limited time at a tradeshow[xxiv].

Tradeshow: Facts and Figures

The Centre for Exhibition Inudstry Research (CEIR; Chicago) identified more than 10,000 business-to-business tradeshows (having more than 3,000 square feet or more) in the U.S. and Canada in 2004. During the period from 1985 to 2000, the number of exhibitions grew by more than 7 per year. In 2004, 82 of U.S. corporations surveyed by the MPI (Meeting Professionals International) Foundation included event marketing in their marketing mix. Companies spend more than $15 billion exhibiting at tradeshows and generate more than $70 billion in sales annually. The average tradeshow attendee spends 8.9 hours visiting all exhibits at a show[xxv].


Historically, tradeshows have been conceived of as vehicles of communication with company exhibits fulfilling an advertising and display function. Over time, this view has been challenged and replaced with the view that tradeshows are primarily events where products and services are sold or contracts and rights signed. However, in some instances, product or service offerings and buying processes are regarded as too complex to permit full assessment or commitment to be made on-site. In such situations, tradeshows, at best, are likely to generate sales leads to be followed up afterwards. In the 1980s, a broader view of tradeshows became more accepted. Several researchers argued that companies use tradeshows to pursue multiple objectives beyond communications and selling. Given these differing conceptions of tradeshows, “performance” has been defined in several contrasting ways, such a situation makes for a “sloppy” evaluation situation[xxvi].  Efforts to define tradeshow performance at a theoretical level have been limited or even non-existent.


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[1]Parasuraman, A. “The Relative Importance of Industrial Promotion Tools,” Industrial Marketing Management, Vol. 10, 1981, pp.277-281.

[1]O’Hara, Bradley S., “Evaluating the Effectiveness of Tradeshows: A Personal Selling Perspective,” working paper, South-eastern Louisiana University, 1991.


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[1]Op.cit., pp.75-83.

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[1]Witt, Jerome and C.P.Rao, op.cit.

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[1]Wu, J., et al., “An Empirical Study of Trade Show Formation and Diversity,” Institute for the Study of Business Markets, The Pennsylvania State Univ., University Park, PA, 2003.

[1]Banoma Thomas V., “Get More out of Your Trade Show,” Harvard Business Review, January-February 1983, pp.75-83.