Artificial intelligence, Augmented Reality and many more digital technologies have matured to useful tools in the exhibition industry over the past twelve months. But still there is a uneasy feeling when talking to exhibition industry executives about digital transformation. Stephan Forseilles, Tesi Baur and Gunnar Heinrich from the UFI Digital Innovation Committee discussed this topic with lots of executives during plenary sessions at UFI’s Global Congress in Johannesburg and European Conference in Verona, asking them to vote in real-time for or against bold statements related to Digital Transformation in the exhibition industry. Here are some of the most heatedly discussed topics and why there is still a concerning wait-and-see attitude.


Privacy laws, even though they make everybody’s life (a little bit) more complicated, should not massively slow down the Digital Revolution. On the contrary, they may prove to be a way to develop a new type of relationship with the customers, one based on trust and transparency. The big losers in this game will be the ones clinching to the 20th century marketing habits of sending as many emails as possible, preferably with the ‘unsubscribe’ button in a tiny grey-on-white font in the middle of a kilometer-long footer.

The spectre “Virtual Trade Shows” replacing live events can definitely be buried: Virtual Reality will not at all be a serious threat to the exhibition industry, it might just be a useful complement. People will continue to want to meet face-to-face.

Millennials are a game-changing generation. They’re also the “Selfie Generation”, more attracted to the experience than to the brand. They have grown with amazon and Facebook and expect every experience to be as easy, fast and enjoyable. Is the exhibition industry providing that? (See further, but here’s a spoiler: they are not). By 2020 millennials will represent 50% of the workforce. Everyone should definitively aim to have more of them in key positions in their organisations. 75% of executives agree.


Amazon, Facebook, Google, Alibaba and all the others, they have spoiled us with everything quick and easy: registering, buying, recommendations, search… Even in physical locations, like amazon’s “Go Store” in Seattle where there is no cash register: Grab your groceries and just walk out! Does the exhibition industry provide the same level of incredibly easy experience? Well…

82% of the executives who’ve answered, think the exhibition industry is providing an outdated customer experience from 30 years ago, far from the convenience and speed of Google, amazon or Facebook. From registration (89% think a registration revolution is urgently needed!) to queuing, finding one’s way, communicating with each other, booking a stand or getting furniture or an electrical connection on a booth… Everything is still much too painful and slow! Especially the registration process has to be revolutionized since it barely changed since it came online a couple of decades ago. With new technologies, like face recognition and AI, cannot it be made convenient and user-friendly?

Some might think: However, we’re taking steps: We’re embracing new technologies and improving the customer experience to match the best companies, aren’t we? At least we’re working on it? Well, 95% of the executives, who have been asked, think that the exhibition industry is only doing a pseudo-digitization. Yes, they do play with technology and they all boast that they are revolutionizing customer experience, but they are only pretending. Under that fresh coat of A.I. / IoT / Big Data / VR / AR paint, they are still the old-fashioned exhibition organizers, venue operators and service providers motivated by one thing: turnover. Satisfaction surveys, besides being hated by everyone who has to experience them, are just statistics, not the eye-opening, butt-kicking wake-up call they should be.


So, 80% think the exhibition industry provides a crappy customer experience. 90% think some of their old-fashioned processes like registration need to be revolutionized because they might turn customers away. 95% think they are just pretending to do something about it. They are in a dark corner but they know about it! They are aware that, if a game-changing competitor was to enter their industry with an amazon-like customer experience, Netflix-like curated content and Uber-like convenience and pricing, they could see a tectonic shift of customers toward these new entrants. Or aren’t they?

Here comes the uneasy feeling: Almost 70% of exhibition industry executives still think that, despite the numbers above, there is no risk of seeing their industry being “Uberized” either by a new entrant or by an existing player who would turn the business model and experience upside down, like amazon, Tesla, Uber, SpaceX or AirBnB did for other industries. Move along. Nothing to see here. We’re kings of the hill. We’re safe for any foreseeable future. Executives from the music industry, the hotel industry or the automotive industry probably felt the same several years ago. Guess Nokia executives felt the same in 2006, one year before the iPhone was released.

However, the awareness is growing. More and more millennials are acquiring key positions. Artificial intelligence is now used daily for marketing and sales optimization and other A.I.-based applications are becoming very good at matchmaking, for example. AR is used as a sales tool, as in Suntec Singapore’s HybridD tool which recently won the UFI Digital Innovation Award. Also, lots of highly innovative startups are reaching the spotlight, aiming to improve the attendee experience. More and more people are feeling that a change is needed. Reverse mentoring programs are being implemented, where experienced but ageing executives are coached by digital natives about what younger generations expect as a customer service.

It seems as if the exhibition industry is on the verge of an inflexion point. Everybody knows things are coming but they see the wall far away and think that they still have time to correct course or even that the wall will have vanished by the time they get there. But it might be closer than it appears and, in any case, working at giving attendees and customers a better and revolutionized experience will never be a bad thing!


This article is based on Stephan Forseilles’ post “Why discussing digital with the exhibition industry makes me scratch my head” in the UFI Digital Innovation Group on LinkedIn. Keep in touch and stay updated on digital innovations in the exhibition industry.

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Munich, 11 July 2018, © adventics GmbH