Coronavirus Cancelled Trade Shows Go Virtual 

In recent weeks, novel coronavirus—and COVID-19, the respiratory disease it causes—has wreaked global havoc. Not only did the outbreak trigger the largest one-day stock drop in history, but it’s also caused scores of trade shows and professional conferences to postpone or cancel their events. This includes some of the biggest events of the year across major industries.  

  • The HIMSS health conference announced on Thursday that organizers cancelled the March conference for the first time in more than 50 years
  • Geneva International Motor Show cancelled its popular event after the Swiss government banned any public gatherings of more than 1,000 people. As a result, staff had to dismantle exhibition displays that were already up in anticipation of the event.
  • Mobile World Congress, the world’s largest cell phone trade show, was cancelled mid-February.
  • After initially declaring the event would go on no matter what, organizers of the massive SXSW festival did, in fact, cancel the event for this year. 

In addition, businesses all over the world are cancelling or postponing all non-essential travel and large group meetings. For example, industrial supply company WW Granger cancelled its popular annual sales show, although it simultaneously tasked reps to reach out individually to affected customers and attendees.

Will Virtual Trade Shows Become the New Normal?

The number of trade shows, conferences, and exhibitions that have been cancelled globally has jumped dramatically in recent days, with over 440 trade shows in North America, Europe, and Asia now cancelled or postponed as of March 9th. Many of those decisions took place within the last week, and the number is growing daily. AdWeek is one go-to source keeping a running list of cancellations and travel restrictions.

As organizers debate the pros and cons of cancellation, many businesses that count on the trade show circuit as an integral part of their ongoing marketing efforts are left scrambling to close the gap. Fortunately, a bit of creativity and incorporation of the right technology can help sustain this year’s marketing plans. One of the best options for this year is shifting our focus to virtual trade shows.

Understand Your Goals for Virtual Trade Shows

Before you pivot to make up for any trade show marketing loss, start by revisiting your goals and KPIs for the event. Was your primary aim to engage in direct networking, sales, brand awareness activities, educational opportunities? Was participation a crucial part of a launch plan? Then revise for a virtual space.

What’s the most effective substitute for cancelled trade shows? Digital connections and communications. Depending on your specific goals, that still leaves plenty of room as you align around your next steps.

Show Up Digitally: Leverage Live and Produced Video Conferencing

Some event organizers have set up digital opportunities and virtual trade shows to offset the lost networking or revenue for attendees. If this isn’t the case for your specific event, ask event organizers if they’re able to host any digital efforts. For example, can sponsors or booth-holders receive space on a communal landing page? Here, attendees can then “visit” each company to learn more about their products and services. Alternately, can panels and presentations move to a livestream broadcast format or another virtual solution?

If those options aren’t possible, consider how you can close the gap yourself:

  • Repurpose webinar and online meeting software to provide content virtually. In fact, Zoom Video Communications stock has actually increased as a result of the outbreak, as more companies turn to remote communication technologies to help prevent further disease spread.
  • Consider Facebook Live, IGTV, YouTube, live-tweeting, and other low-cost ways to leverage social media. This is especially effective if you can organize with other attendees for broader reach. 
  • Consider joining a LinkedIn group to connect with peers and share ideas, news, and info about your solutions.
  • Leverage existing digital assets that highlight products and services. For example, repurpose photos and convert other content to digital format. 
  • Video is an even better and more effective choice, since it’s far more captivating and engaging for digital audiences. This could include explainer and demo videos of your offering, as well as reproducing live demo presentations on video to reach your intended trade show audience.  

Reach Out to Attendees Yourself

If there’s an attendee list, reach out to planned event attendees and other participants directly. This serves as another great opportunity to highlight your solution through video. 

In fact, this can be an ideal time to repurpose your trade show budget for a brand new video marketing campaign. Paired with email, PPC, or social media promotion and outreach, a well-crafted video is often as effective and engaging as any other type of digital content

  • On Instagram, video is the most shared content type. 
  • Tweets with video enjoy ten times the engagement level of tweets with no video attached. 
  • LinkedIn users are 20 times more likely to share a video than any other kind of content. 

You can also repackage your trade show explainer or demo video into a short “teaser” video of about 10-15 seconds. Use this to run a pre-roll ad on YouTube or another social media channel targeted to your demographic.

Finally, review trade show policies. Is a refund possible? Did the organizers have adequate insurance in place? Taking the time to review your legal and practical options now can ensure you’re still getting at least some value from your event marketing budget. 


No matter which industry you’re in, this recent turn of events is relatively uncharted territory. However, for many reasons, it’s important not to panic. Don’t focus on what’s being restricted or taken away. Instead, consider instead what’s left, what’s still available for use, and what new opportunities this shifting landscape creates.

A cancelled trade show can be an intimidating challenge, yet brands should continue to reach their audiences in new ways. The playing field may have shifted, but you still need to create or maintain awareness, network, engage, and drive revenue. Move quickly and purposefully to be among the first market players creating content that will move the conversation forward virtually. 

The environment might have even changed for the long term, but there’s nothing to stop you from developing a marketing strategy that’s built for this new normal.

Working on materials for upcoming virtual trade shows or developing a more robust marketing plan for this year? We’re here to help.