What Will Cannabis Trade Shows Look Like in the Future?

Cannabis trade shows future IR-Stone image mg Magazine
Illustration: IR Stone / Shutterstock

The shows they are a-changin’. In size, scope, and venue, conferences, expos, and conventions will take on a new complexion going forward, starting this year.

The most noticeable change in cannabis trade shows so far: virtual events. When pandemic-induced lockdowns hit, trade shows were among the first casualties. Faced with a sudden loss of cash flow, 81 percent of event producers were quick to pivot to the cloud, where physical interaction isn’t required. From simple Zoom seminars, keynote addresses, and workshops to elaborate affairs boasting digital exhibit halls, the speed with which organizers, exhibitors, and attendees adopted the new format was mind-boggling. According to the Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR), only 12 percent of events globally included virtual components in 2019; by 2020, 88 percent embraced the new format.


Despite the rapid uptake, virtual shows faced significant challenges. For one, the technology was not quite ready for prime time: Streaming hiccups and other issues plagued many undertakings. Sponsors balked at paying for an unproven platform, and without traditional deal-making spaces, exhibitors found generating sales leads and return on investment difficult. Networking is the second-most-important reason attendees give for attending trade shows (after product prospecting), yet only about half of attendees were satisfied with the networking opportunities offered. They also mourned the lack of swag and product samples.

No going back

Nevertheless, there appears to be no going back. Even though face-to-face events have resumed, 68 percent of trade-show executives said they expect virtual components to become a larger part of in-person shows; only 22 percent intend to abandon the virtual aspects they adopted during the pandemic, according to CEIR. Although about half of those who will maintain virtual elements said they would consider producing a completely virtual show, the majority (74 percent) plan to produce hybrid events that combine education, promotional content, and networking in the digital realm with traditional exhibits in the real world.

Neal Vitale, a forty-year veteran of the media and trade-show spaces, is not a fan of hybrids. “I’m not sure they really satisfy the audience in the way one of the others would,” he said. Although he prefers face-to-face events, he admitted “there’s lots of appeal to virtual.” For one thing, the medium is affordable: Fees for both attendees and exhibitors are about half what they’d pay at an in-person show, staffing costs are vastly reduced, and travel and lodging costs are nonexistent. In addition, exhibitors usually receive data about attendee engagement and demographics, which can help them refine their offerings in both the virtual and real worlds.

Vitale sees virtual shows as a potentially vital part of the growing emphasis on omnichannel, or 360-degree, marketing. “Providing more value to members of the community could involve print, online, trade shows, social media…” he said. “Combining all these things to surround a marketplace and offer a variety of opportunities makes sense.”

Lewis Shomer, chairman of Abilities Expo, isn’t particularly fond of virtual formats. “It depends on whether the event is conference-driven or exhibition-driven,” he said. Virtual events work well for conferences, especially if attendees receive continuing education credits for participation, but “hybrid just doesn’t work. Our exhibitors are telling us they hate virtual.” Exhibitors consistently cite an inability to negotiate business deals and provide “sneak previews” of new products as reasons for their distaste, he added.

In Shomer’s view, other technologies will play a larger, more impressive role in the future: virtual reality and augmented reality. “Those two are going to become extremely important for trade shows,” he said. “I can’t tell you whether it’ll happen next year or in 2030, but the experience will be trade shows on steroids.”

In fact, companies already are employing VR and AR in their exhibits to demonstrate products and services in a safe, controlled way. Medical device manufacturers are giving professionals “hands-on” experience with new equipment in virtual hospital rooms, for example. At cannabis trade shows, extraction and cultivation equipment exhibitors could offer the same sort of “test drives.”

Shomer also is fascinated by the potential for technologies like Apple’s new AirTags — button-sized devices that can be tracked with an iPhone app. They’re designed to find lost keys and the like, but Shomer envisions something similar functioning as a sort of personalized show guide, tracking attendees around an exhibit hall, suggesting booths and experiences similar to those they’ve already interacted with, and then providing directions to those locations.

Ideally, the “show buttons” also would collect data, and Shomer believes data-capturing methods may be the most exciting development for the future of trade shows. “The use and implementation of data is going to be very, very important” to future shows, he said. “There are so many uses for data we haven’t even discovered yet. Once you can harness that and use it, then it becomes a revenue base.”