Expo floor at the International Builders Show, one of the largest trade shows in the United States. … [+] (Photo by Roberto Gonzalez/Getty Images)
When one of the largest trade shows in an industry goes virtual, the announcement makes major waves. That was the case today when Design & Construction Week, the successful co-location of the International Builder’s Show with the Kitchen & Bath Industry Show, announced that its 2021 expo scheduled for February in Orlando would be an online-only event.
Press releases from parent companies National Association of Home Builders for IBS and the National Kitchen & Bath Association for KBIS crashed into in-boxes in close succession, with ripples spreading far across social media. DCW is a must-go for homebuilders, interior designers, architects and both global and emerging brands that want their dollars.
The two shows started meeting together in 2014, after the Great Recession battered the homebuilding and remodeling industry, and the pairing was so successful that they’ve been hosting their expos side-by-side ever since.
Appliance industry veteran, Zach Elkin, newly named as president of Beko US, Inc, a subsidiary of global consumer durables company Arçelik, commented, “I’m sure this was a very tough decision. That said, KBIS and IBS leadership made the right decision for the right reason.”
Chief among those reasons is the safety and security of show goers, exhibitors, and convention and hospitality staff in the midst of a global pandemic. Another is the uncertainty of travel restrictions that could keep international exhibitors and attendees from traveling to Orlando in February. “Personally, I am hugely relieved that KBIS was changed to all virtual! Sad but relieved,” says longtime attendee and presenter, Paula Kennedy. The certified master kitchen and bath designer adds, “Even if the convention center had all these safety measures in place, how safe is the rest of that area, taxis, busses, etc.”
Thomas Yoon, CEO of LG Electronics North America, has parent company colleagues based in Seoul, South Korea who could be even more impacted by these travel restrictions. “LG and Signature Kitchen Suite remain committed to deliver engaging virtual experiences for the designer and builder communities, while continuing our major presence in The New American Home and The New American Remodel for 2021.” These showcase homes, usually day one DCW tour experiences, will need a virtual makeover too.
“We recognize that this difficult decision comes with the priority of keeping our industry healthy and safe as we manage this situation together,” says Eduardo Cosentino, CEO of surfacing brand Cosentino North America. “This pivot is a chance for Cosentino to re-envision how we can connect with [customers] in an inspiring way,” he adds.
“I am energized by the new opportunities a virtual solution affords us, and believe this will lead to a vitalization of our industry,” declares Shawn Oldenhoff, President of Kohler Kitchen & Bath North America. The design conglomerate best known for its toilets, sinks and faucets has been a major exhibitor at both KBIS and IBS for decades.
“Having been both an exhibitor and an attendee at physical trade shows, I certainly miss the human interaction and networking of being face to face,” shares Jaime Derringer, founder and chief creative officer of popular online site Design Milk. “I don’t think anyone has been able to successfully replace a physical show with something virtual. However, I believe online events and experiences can keep us connected.”
Challenges can spur creativity. Derringer has had a role at DCW and other trade shows as a curator of dynamic show floor sections within the larger show. She’s also a popular panel moderator. “Engaging the audience is important in this age of Zoom fatigue!” she points out, suggesting interactive activities, Q&As and other breaks from talking head webinars. “A creative option would be to recruit a group of attendees ahead of time and send them out a packet of information, or a fun creative exercise to engage them during a live event,” she suggests.
“Digital experiences certainly can’t completely replace in-person events entirely, but they do offer some exciting upsides — including how much more access so many more people will have to new brands, new ideas and new products,” shares Kaitlin Petersen, editor in chief of Business of Home, a digital trade publication for the residential design world. “As much as I’ll miss being at KBIS in 2021, I’m excited to see how the show’s reach is able to expand beyond the people who typically attend each year, and I’m curious to see how brands innovate to harness that potential.”
“I’d love to see a map,” declares Kennedy, “like we were going in person; then I can point and click and go into a booth to either meet with an individual, or see a virtual tour or request product info. Then, on that same map can be education centers that you click on for schedules, and open networking lounges that you can pop into and chat with whomever is in the ‘room.’ Topics and education need to be given multiple times in case we are double-booked or offer it as a recording to watch later.” That’s actually an opportunity for a virtual trade show to exceed its in-person equivalent; many show attendees are bogged down with continuing education sessions or board meetings and can’t spend as much time walking the show as they would like.
Cosentino is pondering “how we can virtually host KBIS attendees at our global headquarters in Spain to see our newest introductions.” Bringing design professionals across the Atlantic, as the company has in the past, likely costs a great deal more, (as does setting up its booth at the show.)
“Making appointments to have reps speak with exhibitors one on one, just like at a trade show, is still of critical importance to both brands and attendees,” Derringer comments. “The ability to have questions answered and network via a one-on-one Zoom call combined with booth tours via Zoom or video tours with product demos are a temporary replacement for being able to experience the product in person.” She points out another benefit, as Peterson had observed: “Recording and rebroadcasting live events enables more people to engage with your brand if they happened to miss the live event.” She suggests using technology to produce 3-D product imagery, too.
Learning from Mistakes
DCW isn’t the first design industry expo having to contend with Covid in 2020, and there are lessons to be learned from nearly a year of creative professionals adapting to a new ‘normal.’ Design industry consultant Irene Williams has already been part of onlining expos. “Great content is perhaps the simplest part of the equation. Way more challenging? Creating effective incarnations of the exhibit floor,” she states, adding, “Thus far, I’m not seeing alternatives that really move the needle for exhibitors in these virtual show environments.”
Derringer agrees, “I would caution brands to avoid only providing photos and summaries on web pages to replace their booth experience without considering the other elements of the experience that designers need to better understand new products and consider them for future projects.”
“An online show must be intuitive to figure out,” observes Kennedy. Referring to one recent industry expo driven online-only, she recalls, “They had a list of all their sponsors, but the logo didn’t say what they were. Even when I clicked on the logo, it didn’t tell me what they do or why I’d want to schedule time with them.”
One of the challenges of virtual trade shows is attention deficit, Williams says. “The tendency for attendees is to treat virtual events as in-and-out/’watch whenever’ experiences that get mingled into the mix of regular life.” Her recommendation to avoid this pitfall is offering ‘must watch in the moment’ presentations. “It’d be cool to encourage watch parties so everybody from the same company tune in at the same time and banter through live chat. Though the show is virtual, the attendees take one or two full days to focus just as they would had they traveled to a destination.”
Williams also suggests curbing Zoom fatigue with large screen style presentations. “I won’t bore you with what all these online meetings and presentations do to our brain processing. I’ll just say that this much content would be way more fun to watch on a nice TV instead of a laptop.”