Millennials and Trade Shows: Like Water and Oil?

640px-CeBIT_2000_exhibition_hall (1)It’s a self-canceling activity: A businessperson wandering the aisles of a trade show, eyes fixed on a glowing 4-inch screen and thumbing the “keyboard” of a smartphone.

This little image leads us to a discussion of two sides of an important issue concerning Millennials, Gen-Xers, Baby Boomers and trade shows:

  1. Millennials and Gen-Xers need to appreciate the importance of events such as trade shows and develop the personal skills required to make them valuable to business, and
  2. Trade show organizers and exhibitors need to develop strategies that attract younger generations of professionals and strengthen their messages.

I don’t have hard figures, but I suspect that trade show attendance by Millennials and Gen-Xers isn’t at the same rate as it has been for Baby Boomers. I say this because I sense quite a lot of action addressing my second point above—planners are going out of their way trying to attract this younger crowd.

Social skills status update

Younger professionals are extraordinarily adept at the “social” skills as long as the word “social” is followed by the word “media.” I think they need to see trade shows as the original social media or as social media “with skin on.”

Ann Pigoni recently wrote that there are some Baby Boomer skills that Millennials need to pick up on, including the art of small talk, and it’s the art of small talk that often serves one well in the trade show environment.

Small talk in the virtual world hinges on the ability to decipher cryptic text message abbreviations; in the real world, it’s the ability to engage people of all ages from many walks of life in interesting conversation that lays the foundation for building a relationship.

Baby Boomers are expert in this skill and often less proficient at electronic communications. Many younger businesspeople rely on electronic communications because that is where they feel more comfortable. Professionals who can master effective communication through both channels will have a distinct advantage in the marketplace.


For trade show organizers and exhibitors, it’s critical to bring their infrastructure and their appeal into the digital age. Handing out brochures may be less important than being able to quickly download product information, or join a Twitter conversation on a hot topic.

Before and after trade show appearances, continuing the conversation in the social media is smart. Remember how you used to make all of those followup calls after trade shows? Today, social media is an important adjunct to that effort.

For many companies, it’s common to have invested in the standard trade show stand regalia 10 years ago and continue to drag it out, year after year. If that describes you, it’s probably time for a complete redesign.

Hire a Millennial to help you with the redesign!

Trade shows go back to the Middle Ages and I’m confident they will continue to be important through the Digital Age, Information Age, New Media Age and beyond, and I’m excited to see how young leaders will transform them to meet changing needs and attitudes.

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Image: “CeBIT 2000 exhibition hall.” Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.