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Business trends

Trade shows go virtual for global reach in coronavirus era

Industry at turning point as companies ditch fairs to host own events

The Ceatec consumer electronics fair, seen here in 2019, will go online this year. (Photo by Masayuki Terazawa)

GUANGZHOU -- Trade exhibitions have moved to the internet amid the pandemic, forgoing face-to-face interactions with visitors while creating opportunities to connect with those who would otherwise not attend.

Building materials manufacturer Cmech (Guangzhou) Industrial Co. eagerly shared product information via livestreaming in the first-ever online edition of the China Import and Export Fair, or Canton Fair, that kicked off this week. The Guangdong Province company's virtual-reality showroom tour gives viewers a better feel for such offerings as window frames and sliding doors.

Puppy Electronic Appliances Internet Technology Beijing, or Puppyoo, set up a 3D virtual exhibit to enable online visitors to walk around and browse its conventional and robot vacuum cleaners.

The online version of the twice-yearly Canton Fair -- China's largest trade show -- posed challenges for both organizers and participants. Yet the virtual fair drew an estimated 20,000-plus exhibitors from industries ranging from machinery to household goods as well as trading companies. A major appeal was the absence of product installation and removal costs, as one vendor put it.

Roughly 32,000 exhibitions were held around the world in 2018, attracting 303 million visitors, according to UFI, the global association of the exhibition industry. Trade fairs increasingly target specific product genres and themes, and some corporate buyers spend the entire year traveling the globe to attend expos one after another.

Cmech livestreamed presentations about its products for this month's Canton Fair. (Image from the company's Facebook account)

But that was all before the disruptions caused by the new coronavirus. Now travel restrictions and bans on large indoor gatherings pose challenges for the trade fair industry.

So exhibition organizers are turning to virtual space. Germany's Hannover Messe, a major international trade show for industrial technology, is debuting a "Digital Days" event in July after canceling the in-person show scheduled for April. In Japan, the Ceatec consumer electronics fair and the Tokyo Game Show are moving online.

Virtual exhibitions offer new opportunities for manufacturers, eliminating geographical barriers so that the companies can reach a much larger audience.

Sony Interactive Entertainment recently drew about 2.5 million viewers to its livestream unveiling the Sony unit's PlayStation 5 game console and new titles.

Such company-hosted events independent of trade shows may develop into a popular trend. One pioneer is Nintendo, which had been holding its own events around the time of the Tokyo Game Show even before the coronavirus outbreak.

"Video games are perfect to be shown online, and companies, particularly big players with strong brands and customer engagement, will likely see no need to participate in trade shows," an industry insider said.

The question is how to translate virtual showcasing into actual sales. At the Canton Fair, a building materials trading house drew some 150,000 viewers to its live-commerce session on the first day. But it received just three inquiries.

Ceatec's organizers plan to add a chat feature to each exhibitor's page. But there are concerns that vendors may have trouble communicating with people who do not know Japanese.

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