Events News

What does a virtual electronica mean for our industry?

2nd November 2020
Joe Bush

Under normal circumstances everyone in the industry should be in the process of clearing their diary and packing the lederhosen as the great and the good of the electronics world descend on Munich for the biennial electronica exhibition.

However, the sad truth is that we are living in far from normal circumstances. The coronavirus pandemic means that most of us are still based remotely and are not even going into the office yet, let alone thinking about jetting off to attend an international exhibition.

That being the case, the powers that be decided to cancel the physical electronica show and revert (as most have) to a virtual-only event. With restrictions being tightened once again, it’s difficult to know when we’ll next see packed exhibition halls.

Falk Senger who is Managing Director in charge of Messe München’s international trade fairs in the high technology sector said: “It was a very tough decision to cancel electronica as a physical event. As recently as August we were looking forward to the trade fair and were optimistic that the electronics industry would be able to meet in Munich. Nevertheless, with COVID-19 we face a very dynamic situation and things can change on a daily basis. So, in September the latest developments related to travel restrictions in many countries which again, were becoming more stringent, forced us to rethink our plans.

“Without doubt international exhibitors and visitors are the heart of electronica and in light of this situation, and the current conditions, we would not have been able to meet expectations with an in-person trade fair. We would have lost the character of electronica of a world leading trade fair. From today’s perspective, organising electronica as a virtual event was definitely the right decision.”

face-to-face networking is a vital part of electronica that will be missing this year

Above: face-to-face networking is a vital part of electronica that will be missing this year

But what does this mean to the individuals and organisations within our industry? electronica is the blue-ribbon event for the electronics sector. It’s where the industry comes together once every two years to catch up with customers and suppliers, get deals over the line, and where products and technologies are brought to life – all in one place. The 2018 show welcomed over 80,000 visitors through the door, from over 100 countries, and hosted 3,000 exhibitors across 17 halls.

Mark Burr-Lonnon, Senior Vice President of Global Service & EMEA and APAC Business, at Mouser added: “Electronica is the biggest global event on our exhibition calendar, and we are sorry to be missing this key industry event. The show represents an excellent opportunity for face-to-face meetings with industry colleagues and the possibility to meet current and potential customers, receiving valuable feedback on our services. The only pros of not attending come with saving budget and time, but we would have preferred to be there in person, as it’s the best way of establishing long-term relationships.”

Indeed, for any electronica novices, the scale of the show is something to behold. Some of the stands deal more in acreage than square footage (with thousands being spent), and certain halls (and the nearby metro platforms) experience crowds that would be more akin to what is seen down the road at the Allianz Arena (Bayern Munich FC’s home ground), than in an exhibition for the electronics industry.

So, there is an electronica shaped hole in most people’s diaries this year, and there will certainly be a feeling of FOMO (fear of missing out, for those who don’t know). The show is a hectic menagerie where contacts are made, partnerships are forged, and hands are shook. This vibrant bustling bazaar spills out from the halls of the exhibition and into the Munich winter’s night, as conversations continue in the city’s restaurants, hotel bars and bierkellers.

It’s a frenzied and frantic week where many a step counter burns out, as people wrack up the miles around the enormous halls, desperately trying to make it from hall B6 to A1 for the next meeting. While many an evening dinner stretches out into the wee hours as people chew the fat over the day’s events over a few steins of Pauliner or glass or two of Gewürztraminer. Indeed, a well-known electronica stalwart once told me that: “If you’re getting more than three hours sleep a night at electronica then you’re not doing it right!”

So just how is this going to be replicated virtually? There is no doubting the seismic changes brought about by the coronavirus – not least the meteoric rise in remote working and virtual events. So can a show of electronica’s ilk really work digitally?

Pros of a virtual event

For sure, the virtual event is here to stay and will still have a place moving forward post-COVID. The cost of exhibiting at a show like electronica should not be underestimated and the COVID-19 crisis has caused organisations to revaluate the return on investment from physical events, which is always a difficult factor to gauge accurately.

Exhibiting at a blockbuster show like electronica is no mean undertaking. I’ve already touched on the size of some the stands, the cost of which can run into the thousands - to say nothing of the cost associated with transporting and accommodating large numbers of staff - so the bill from electronica week is often eye-watering, making the prospect of a virtual event an attractive one. But are they an adequate alternative?

Burr-Lonnon added: “Virtualised shows are very different from physical events. They offer great convenience, of course, in that you can attend from your home. Not having to travel across the globe saves time and money.”

Nick Foot, PR Director for BWW Communications added: “For a relatively small sum, companies can take a booth or sponsor a hall, or pay the organiser through another mechanism, and in return they will get real visitor names and addresses that they can use for marketing. The cost/name is a fraction of what it would be for a ‘real’, physical show. This is one aspect of virtual events that works very well.”

The COVID-19 crisis has undoubtedly forced companies to be flexible and to pivot quickly, think outside the box, accelerate the adoption of new technologies and solutions, and even host their own virtual events, as Robby Ferdinandus, Global Head of Marketing at Nexperia explained: “The impact of COVID-19 on trade shows in 2020 has forced us to think outside of the traditional ways to demonstrate our technologies. The benefits of digitalising events were clear from an early stage - the opportunity of reaching a wider audience, generating greater content reach, and applying longevity to the efforts and investment with the ability to repurpose the materials produced.”

Steven Edwards, Marketing Director at Rohde & Schwarz continued: “While this crisis regrettably has kept us away from meeting our customers physically it has accelerated our digital transformation by years. Very quickly we increased our webinar programme and we also have initiated a shift to more in-house, virtual events.

“For example, in October, we held our first digital conference on the ongoing evolution of 5G. It attracted hundreds of virtual visitors from around the globe. We digitised the atrium of our Technology Center to really invite our customers back into Rohde & Schwarz. Shifting to such digital formats also allows us to open up formerly local events to a wider audience beyond national borders.”

The downsides

There is no doubt that without the enormous impact of the coronavirus pandemic we would all be carrying on regardless, virtual events would be unheard of, and your grandparents wouldn’t know the first thing about Zoom! Therefore, it’s clear that these changes are enforced rather than something the industry would have eventually adopted with an eager fervour.

Inevitably therefore, there are clearly downsides to virtual events. Some, as previously mentioned, are pertinently obvious. electronica is an exhibition where visitors, customers and journalist can get up close and personal with the latest products. Burr-Lonnon added: “There is no escaping the fact that exchanging of information and knowledge face-to-face has a much bigger impact, especially with the possibility to display products and engage the visitors in stand activities. The virtual experience cannot deliver on these experiences.”

This was a sentiment echoed by many in the industry, including Foot: The experience of this year indicates to me that virtual shows do not offer much in the way of networking. Perhaps in the future when we are all wearing VR headsets linked to a smartphone app and personal avatar, we may be able to network at virtual events, but I think that is certainly a behavioural, and possibly a technological step too far for the immediate future. Also, currently, the chat functions just aren’t used much, so there is little personal interaction between visitor and booth staffer.

“Some of my clients have questioned whether branding can be successfully achieved at virtual events. My own view is that new software and new platforms will emerge that will facilitate excellent branding - but they are not quite there yet.”

in October, rohde & schwarz held its first digital conference on the ongoing evolution of 5G. The company digitised the atrium of its  Technology Centre to really invite  customers back into Rohde & Schwarz

Above: in October, Rohde & Schwarz held its first digital conference on the ongoing evolution of 5G. The company digitised the atrium of its Technology Centre to really invite customers back into Rohde & Schwarz

As mentioned, companies have had to move quickly during COVID-19, and far from dipping a toe in the water, have had to throw themselves headfirst into the unknown waters of virtual events, as Ferdinandus explained: “It has been a substantial learning curve, and one that no amount of research or insights could have provided in advance. 

“The semiconductor industry is dynamic, but it is also learning the new behaviours of its audience - how do engineers source the latest innovations in a digital world? What channels are most effective for one-to-one engagement when inundated with an array of digital events? Despite the challenges it has been clear that there maintains an appetite from our engineering audience to learn about the most recent innovations, but even the most creative of ways to share these with our customers do not replace the experience of witnessing in person.”

Furthermore, due to the circumstances this year, organisations have had no choice but to try to reach their audience and potential customers online only, which creates an overcrowded digital marketplace. “This makes it especially difficult and expensive to stand out. We have found other tools to be more cost effective with better return on investment compared to virtual events,” said Mariann Nagy, Marketing Communications Manager, Omron Electronic Components Europe.

Experience and the future

It is certainly true that the speed with which organisations and the industry as a whole have had to embrace the virtual space has created a modicum of uncertainty and an environment of trial and error – leading to some virtual events being more successful than others.

Burr-Lonnon continued: “The success of each event depends heavily on the functionality and performance of the software platform and the ability to provide exclusive content. We have seen some good virtual events that have been very interactive, but we have not experienced much return from those that have simply tried to replicate the physical exhibition environment. Virtualised shows need to be creative, making smarter use of digital tools to effectively engage the visitor, while encouraging networking and providing access to relevant content. 

“As the digital revolution accelerates and the software improves, virtual events will become more popular. However, we believe physical shows will remain popular, especially considering the strong desire for social interaction after the restrictions are lifted.”

“We are currently in the process of finalising some virtual show stands, so we don’t know yet how well those perform,” added Alexandra Holub, Marketing Communications Director at EnOcean. “There are a lot of different formats popping up, and I am curious to see which ones will become industry standards.

“The change is definitely a chance for innovations in this field. I think virtual shows have been effective to a certain degree as there were simply no alternatives. What would have been a niche for early adopters has suddenly been declared the new normal. Both exhibitors and visitors are visibly sceptical as everybody is lacking experience in this field, but both need a place to connect, even if it is virtually. Virtual shows do save a lot of time and money, which is a huge factor in the decision-making process. Therefore, I do believe they can coexist with actual shows post COVID.”

Of course, this is not the first time that industry has faced challenges and new methods of working, as Foot continued: “I’m old enough to remember the transition from print to online/digital. Often the established publishers of print magazines were slow to see the new possibilities of digital, and many suffered badly because of it. In contrast, some companies that had never had a print title and started by offering purely digital offerings were able to take advantage of the new format much quicker and introduced new ways of working with real benefits.

“I fear that traditional exhibition companies - like the old print-is-best outfits - may similarly be loaded with too much ‘baggage’. Their thinking will be more about how traditional shows can adapt to the digital age, rather than looking at new possibilities offered by digital platforms. I suspect that in the end, in-person live events and virtual events will both come to be regarded as valuable tools to support marketing and sales efforts.

Kevin Brown, Brand and Communications Consultant added:The global pandemic has likely changed the trade show landscape forever. However, I would expect events to ultimately take on a more efficient and productive role in the overall scheme of engaging with customers and business partners, with the future becoming more of a hybrid solution than all one or the other.

“Opportunities for physical interaction will be embraced with much enthusiasm when we’re able to do so once again, but many of the inefficiencies surrounding travel and logistics are likely to be replaced, leveraging technology better than ever - perhaps a blessing in disguise from all this. Relevant content and dialogue in an authentic environment via digital platforms have shown to create connection and intimacy in a positive way. So, a more intentional blend of physical event and virtual conferencing is likely in the future, with relevance of information being critical to success.”

In conclusion and looking at the future of electronica itself, Senger concluded: “The coronavirus pandemic has clearly shown the importance of working on digital services and making them available to customers. And for electronica we will continue to develop our digital innovations, but it’s also clear that a trade fair lives for personal exchange and networks on-site. So in the future we do not want to replace electronica, or parts of it, exclusively with digital formats. We rather aim to supplement the existing successful trade fair concept of electronica with digital formats and offerings in order to provide added value. Not only this year, but also for future editions.”

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