Death to all trade shows

The Covid-19 is a very very bad thing, but if it gets us out of a trade show…

Kathleen Maher
The good old days? A scene like this is now the stuff of horror shows. But, by the way, it looks like women may survive in order to rule the world. (Source: JPR)


This was shaping up to be a terrible trade show season, now it’s turned into a no trade show season. The unthinkable happened in February when the Mobile World Congress (MWC) was canceled in response as major exhibitors from China pulled out. At the time it seemed inconceivable that the huge conference would throw in the towel, but they did probably because many of MWC attendees weren’t able to physically make it to the show due to travel restrictions.

The two important shows for graphics in March are, of course, the Game Developer Conference and Nvidia’s Graphics Technology Conference, or GDC and GTC, respectively and confusingly. It doesn’t matter now. They were canceled.

Actually, GDC has been postponed and there is free content available online. GTC talks were broadcast via the web and will be coming online. Checkout the GTC site and register for updates.

Then SXSW was canceled by the city of Austin.

SXSW brings as many as 300,000 people to Austin, Texas, for a tripartite affair with Interactive, Movies, and Music conferences, outdoor performances, and a massive club crawl. Every street corner is a night club and movie theaters are made out of any convenient enclosed spaces. Art is everywhere. Unwinding this conference must be a nightmare and SXSW organizers have said they just don’t know what comes next. The world will recover from Coronavirus, but it could well change SXSW forever.

The SXSW movie festival has announced its awards for the show so you’ll know what films to keep an eye out for.

For us, FMX in Stuttgart loomed large on our calendar. The conference has a lot of moving parts with tracks around VFX, game development, interactive content, virtual production, and more. We were busy putting together a track and excited about our plans and boom, kaboom. FMX 2020 went away, canceled in a puff of smoke and, as much as I hate to admit this, it was my first realization that the situation in Europe was getting bad fast. Then Italy closed…

We’ve also been part of the Realtime Conference that’s coming up in New York. It will now be an online-only show.

The world is a different place. No matter what happens now.

Specifically, there are going to be huge changes in the ways people communicate with their customers. What happens after this trade show season is that some companies may realize they have additional cash as a result of not having to spend it on conferences and tradeshows.

Apple shocked the world in 2009, when it helped murder MacWorld, the tradeshow dedicated to Apple products. Apple started winding back its giant presence at other trade shows and instead concentrated on presenting its own message in its own way at its dedicated events, most obviously the Apple Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC). Apple had its reasons, more specifically Steve Jobs had his reasons, but his decisions had universal resonance for companies looking at the ways in which they communicate with their customers and their community of third-party partners, vendors, resellers, and developers. Jobs asked, why spend so much money with outside companies for a trade show where we’re sharing space with our competitors for the attention of our customers?

As it turned out, the recession hit in 2008, and Apple looked pretty smart.

For 2020, Apple has announced that WWDC 2020 in June will be an all-digital conference. For many people, it already was. The company hasn’t had much use for a big press presence and it can be a big investment for starving developers.

We’ve seen Autodesk cut back its participation at trade shows dramatically. Its executives reduce their time at shows preferring instead to stay in the office and work. The company’s different organizations may put on a targeted dinner where there is a tradeshow. The company saves its new and big-gun communication for Autodesk University.

Likewise, Dassault built its own conferences and turned its Solidworks World conference into 3DExperience World.

Microsoft has concentrated on its own conferences, though it has maintained a presence at CES and other large shows.

Sony makes a habit of pulling out of big gaming shows. It has pulled out of E3 in 2019 and announced it’s doing it again. The company is keeping its powder dry until it has a new PlayStation for the punters. Again, it didn’t much matter this time, E3 has announced that it’s canceling for 2020.

Microsoft’s Phil Spencer has promised an Xbox digital event down the road. You can see where this is going, right?

For 2020, they're pretty much won’t be any trade shows and it’s terrible news for hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S.; millions of people worldwide who rely on these conferences for their business or for information.

Most of them will probably come back but thanks to lessons learned during this period of world isolation they will also have much stronger online options. It’s hard to replace the magic of stumbling across a wonderful company or application while aimlessly strolling the aisles of a show. It’s hard to replace the pleasure of running into old friends and companies long admired. But, truthfully, we’ve enjoyed these months at home and our many Zoom conversations (and Uber, and Facetime Live, Skype, etc.) and I suspect I’ll be doing a lot more of it.

2020 is going to be a hard year. 2021 will be a revelatory year and I’m looking forward to telling you how it all pans out from my easy chair and from remote locations … just maybe not quite so many and maybe not so remote.