Categories Virtual events

Host Virtual Trade Shows That Outshine Physical Events

virtual trade show: screenshot of Gather App Main Room

Physical trade shows usually look something like this — a big, glitzy showroom, a range of branded vendor booths, sponsored presentations, and networking sessions.

A virtual trade show isn’t much different. It just takes parts of a physical event and places them in the virtual world. 

With online trade shows, attendees and vendors avoid costly business trips across the country. Organizers can avoid the steep costs of hosting an in-person trade fair — like paying for venue reservation, equipment rental, and marketing collateral. Plus, they can draw guests and exhibitors from all around the world.

This guide walks you through how to plan a virtual trade show from start to finish. We’ll cover features of virtual event platforms and give you a checklist for planning and executing your trade show.

Features of Virtual Trade Shows

virtual trade show: screenshot of Gather App

Here’s what virtual trade show platforms can offer to take your event to the next level.

Interactive Layouts

A virtual trade show should give attendees places to “walk around” and browse — just like in the real world.

With a virtual event platform like Gather, you can use builder tools to customize immersive layouts and create separate areas to suit your trade show needs.

For example, consider including these spaces:

  • Auditorium: Keynote presentations and speeches are main events in trade shows. Dedicate an area where attendees can watch them.
  • Exhibition hall: A virtual exhibit hall is home to vendors and sponsor booths. Each exhibitor must have their own space where they can chat with attendees.
  • Poster sessions: Poster sessions let exhibitors show their work, research, and case studies.
  • Networking areas: Trade show attendees need breakout areas to connect with other attendees and vendors. This should be a relaxed environment so everyone can chat comfortably.
  • Information desk: An information desk is a place to answer questions and help visitors navigate your virtual trade show.

Multiple Ways to Talk and Work

Vendors need simple ways to chat with visitors. The best virtual trade show apps offer:

  • Video chat and live streaming
  • Messaging or group chat
  • Real-time webinars
  • Screen sharing
  • Whiteboards

Customization Options

As an organizer, customize the virtual space with your branding so it feels cohesive and attendees remember you.

Vendors also need to customize their virtual trade show booths. They’ll need signage and links to their websites, social media channels, or email subscriber lists.

With a virtual event platform like Gather, event organizers and vendors can customize spaces in a variety of ways. For example:

  • Images on virtual booths, like a business logo or banner
  • TV object icons that feature links to branded video content
  • Links to Google Forms to collect participant contact information
  • Icons that link to a PDF, presentation deck, or Office document

Virtual Trade Show Checklist

screenshot of Gather App Sponsors Room

Plan and prepare for a virtual trade show in six easy steps. 

1. Define Your Virtual Trade Show

First, define the theme, purpose, and structure of your trade show. A clear vision will go a long way when you’re getting vendors on board and advertising value to potential attendees.

For example:

  • Theme: Advancements in machine learning
  • Purpose: Share cutting-edge machine learning research and give vendors access to potential prospects
  • ​Structure: A combination of keynote speeches, exhibitor booths, research presentations, and networking rooms
virtual trade show: screenshot of and event overview

Image credit: Gartner

The Gartner Marketing Symposium/Xpo structures its trade show into several different tracks, or topics. Attendees can then decide which sessions are most relevant to their business.

2. Choose a Trade Show Platform

One of the most important decisions of organizing a virtual trade show is choosing the right platform. You’ll need more than a standard video conferencing platform. Consider the following factors:

  • Customization of layouts and booths
  • Security features
  • Integrations with other tools
  • Communication options
  • Pricing

Some virtual event platforms may be outdated, stale, or expensive. Request a demo before committing to a platform to avoid these pitfalls.  

3. Invite Exhibitors and Vendors

Vendors need to know how your trade show can benefit them. Most importantly, they care about their return on investment.

When you send email invites to potential exhibitors and vendors, prove that it’s worthwhile to participate. 

There are a few core reasons why companies will join your event. Make sure you mention some of these benefits when reaching out to potential vendors:

  • Encourage lead generation and sales boosts
  • Raise brand awareness
  • Promote new products and services 
  • Educate people about the problems they solve
  • Collect participant contact information
  • Meet hot prospects and potential partners

4. Prepare Trade Show Content and an Event Schedule

You don’t want to chase down vendors at the last minute.

Make sure vendors, exhibitors, and presenters are prepared with the following:

  • Virtual handouts and sales collateral
  • Presentation topics, decks, and visuals
  • Pre-recorded video assets
  • Product demos
  • Branding assets like company logos and virtual business cards

Before you market your event, decide on topics with your speakers. As the trade show organizer, you’ll choose the overall theme but let your keynote speakers choose their specific topics.

Once you’ve collected assets from vendors and picked discussion topics with your speakers, you can finalize the event schedule. This will come in handy when advertising your event to potential attendees.

exhibitor directory example

Image credit: Gartner

For example — in the above screenshot, the Gartner Marketing Symposium/Xpo advertises an exhibitor directory on their website with links to their websites and vendor information.

5. Marketing Your Trade Show

The success of your trade show depends on how many people join. Higher attendance means more opportunities for vendors to make sales.

Three simple tactics can get people interested:

  • Landing page: A customized landing page on your website should provide event information — like the date, time, and duration. Also, include the event agenda, speaker bios, and a registration link for interested visitors. Request as little information as possible from visitors — like first name and email — so more people might sign up.
  • Email marketing: Send invitations to your existing email list. Get people’s attention with a catchy subject line like “Hi [name], free on July 20th? Join us at the International Machine Learning Summit!” or “Learn from industry leaders at the 1st Annual E-commerce Trade Show!” Personalize emails when you can. For instance, use the recipient’s first name in the subject line or in the email copy. 
  • Social media marketing: Use social media channels like LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter to further promote your event. Announce your event about one month ahead of time. Then get attendees excited by revealing details like participating vendors, speaker bios, or interesting topics to discuss.
virtual trade show: Re-Work website

Image credit: Re-Work

The Deep Learning Summit does a great job advertising on their landing page by highlighting previous speakers, showing what’s new at this year’s event and telling why you should attend.

6. Be a Great Host During the Live Event

The time has come to launch your event — your work is nearly done. During your trade show, be on standby to make sure everything runs smoothly.

Prepare to address any questions or issues that vendors or attendees have. Have an information booth where attendees can ask for help. Make sure you or a staff member is available at all times.

Taking Your Next Event Online

If properly executed, virtual trade shows can be even more interactive and engaging than an in-person experience. .Follow the checklist above to plan your virtual trade show. And remember, you need the right virtual environment to make your event a success. Try Gather’s event platform and see what you can dream up.