Trade Shows vs. Conferences vs. Conventions



by Social Tables


Trade shows, conferences, conventions comprise the major event types in the meetings industry. Yet, despite being so commonplace, many of us may not know the true differences between the three. In this post, we’ll break down the nuances, diving into the unique advantages and obstacles of each event type — including tips and examples of how, and where, you do it right. 

Trade Shows

What is a Trade Show?

A tradeshow is an exhibition for companies in a specific industry to showcase and demonstrate their latest offerings to their target audience. Large trade shows may also incorporate some of the learning opportunities of a conference, including speakers, group activities, and beyond. 

Many of the educational elements at a trade show are likely to be hosted by sponsors who are already vending at the exhibition or serve the industry in focus. In most cases, you can think of them as educational infomercials.


The Upsides of a Trade Show

1. Sponsors come with the territory.

Attendees at a trade show are looking to learn about the latest and greatest in industry-related offerings — from new technologies to ancillary services that can help them do their jobs easier. As a result, it’s a big draw for brands who want to reach a particular audience due to the very targeted nature of those in attendance. After all, a large portion of, if not everyone, at the event is likely to be a potential customer. That makes landing sponsors much easier for planners.

2. Trade Shows Bring in Big Bucks

Whereas a convention or conference may only make money off of registrations, a trade show enjoys the benefits of a two-prong revenue stream. Not only are attendees paying registration fees, vendors are also paying for their booth space and the opportunity to interact with a highly qualified audience. (But this also means double the marketing, as your success hinges on the ability to find and bring in vendors.)

The Obstacles in Planning a Trade Show

1. Space Is a Hot Commodity

A sea of vendors and exhibition booths, ancillary spaces for attendee learning opportunities, an area for food and beverage… trade shows come with a laundry list of elements that need space within a venue. Bringing it all together can be a bit of a game of Tetris depending on the space you’re given to play with.

2. The Moving Parts Are Many 

When putting on a trade show,  you’re coordinating loading and docking with suppliers AND the many vendors who need to set up their booths before the show begins. That means planners need to be on their game when it comes to timing. (It also means the ideal venue should have a plethora of docking points to avoid a bottleneck scenario.)

Tips for Planning a Successful Tradeshow

1. Turn One Space Into Many 

Oftentimes, a trade show venue will be one large exhibition hall. However, you want each element of the event to feel like it has its own space. This means getting creative with portable walls and beyond to create a series of pseudo-spaces that feel unique and different. Once the walls are in place, playing with decor, lighting, and even music can help achieve just that.

2. Map It All Out Early

Ideally, you’re locking down your venue 6-12 months in advance of the show. The larger the show, the longer your lead time. And as soon as you have your venue in hand, it’s time to start mapping out the space to find out how many vendors you’ll have room for, what the flow of traffic will be like, and where you have room to add in creative elements. This is where event diagramming software can be a powerful tool, allowing you to lay it all out visually and share that vision with vendors and suppliers in a collaborative way.

An Example of How to Do it Right

Having a great example is crucial to planning the perfect event. For trade show planners, look no further than IMEX — an exhibition that serves the event industry by bringing together event planners, CVBs, tech suppliers, and beyond. 

What sets IMEX apart from other trade shows is its dedication to creating a holistic experience that goes far beyond vendors. It offers unique educational opportunities, memorable speakers, engaging sessions, networking, and creative event concepts — all unified under a theme that sets the tone for the event and the entire industry.


Conferences

What Is a Conference?

Whereas a trade show centers upon vendors and the opportunity to explore new product offerings, a conference hinges upon the exchange of information. This can come in many different forms, but generally the purpose is education. For example, user conferences are hosted by large service providers to inform users, academic conferences bring together leading experts in a particular field of study, and industry-specific conferences invite attendees to learn and better themselves professionally.   

The Upside of Conferences

1. Conferences Offer Flexibility

A mark of a great conference is creativity, and when it comes to creativity, the key is thinking outside of the ballroom. Luckily, with a conference you have the flexibility to take things out of the ballroom and into unique locations that were never designed as venues. This kind of flexibility allows planners to find a venue that maps back to the purpose of the event seamlessly to really get the message across. 

So go ahead: Take your sustainability conference to the mountains of Colorado or take a page out of Forbes’ book and spill your summit into the city. The sky’s the limit (budget permitting, of course.)

2. Attendee Engagement

Conference attendees pay good money to attend and they’re eager to learn. So you can expect them to interact and engage throughout the conference. What does that mean for you? Well for one, user-generated content. Create an event worth sharing (and perhaps a clever hashtag) and those in attendance will help you extend your reach organically and drive FOMO amongst those not in attendance. But it’s on you to build that Insta-worthy event. 

The Obstacles in Planning a Conference

1. Booking Speakers Can Be a Battle

Sure, breakout sessions, networking, and even entertainment are a huge part of the modern conference puzzle. But at the end of the day, it’s still all about the content — and that starts with great speakers. However, sourcing speakers doesn’t always come easy. It’s a cycle of research, refinement, outreach, and negotiation. One thing we can’t stress enough: Be prepared to pay your speakers, or at the very least, come up with ways to compensate beyond cash.  

2. Expectations are higher than ever.

The days of back-to-back speakers within the same four walls are over. Today’s conference-goer expects an event agenda that goes beyond content to create a multifaceted experience. Wellness, entertainment, mindfulness, food, interaction with the host city — a conference is expected to bring all of these elements into a purposeful, personalized experience. Easier said than done, to be sure. 

Tips for Planning a Successful Conference 

1. Build in time to unplug. 

Conferences can be a lot of stimulation: session after session, speaker after speaker, non-stop networking, and the constant stimulation of modern technology. It’s enough to make anyone want to catch a breather. So when planning your conference, also build in spaces and times where attendees can unplug. Some conferences achieve this by creating technology-free zones or even places where attendees can enjoy guided meditation. 

2. Encourage networking through design. 

In a world where we’re constantly glued to our screens, people go to conferences for face-to-face interaction. A large part of that interaction is the many in-person meetings that are scheduled at major events. In fact, large-scale conferences see thousands of meetings booked throughout the course of the event. 

Why? Because they build for it by incorporating unique spaces into their meeting design. After all, who wouldn’t want to meet in hanging trapeze chairs or a serene outdoor setting featuring thoughtfully designed seating? Build it, and they will meet.

An Example of How to Do it Right

The modern conference hinges on a combination of purpose and personalization. No one brings those two things to life quite like C2 Montréal, where attendees enjoyed a whopping 11 different ways to spend every hour of the conference — 11 ways that were anything but ordinary. Think: Cirque du Soleil performances, hidden speakeasies, small cabins for meetings (aka “braindates”), ninjas in bushes, and the best speakers in the business.


Conventions

What Is a Convention? 

Where a convention mainly differs from a conference is in that it is that it generally centers around membership in some form. It could be a formal meeting of members, representatives, delegates, professionals, or even fans. Some examples include political conventions such as the Democratic National Convention or fan-based conventions such as Comic Con.

Aside from fan-based conventions, most conventions are hosted to set forth the agenda for the coming months or years, or discuss issues of interest to the delegation.

The Upsides of Conventions

1. Attendance is less of an unknown at a convention. 

With tradeshows and conferences, driving registrations is a matter of successful marketing. However, when planning a convention, your event enjoys the benefit of having a large pool of members who are likely to attend purely based on their affiliation with the society or profession.

2. There’s plenty of time to plan. 

Since most conventions are annual or even bi-annual events, planners have plenty of time to lock down venues, find suppliers, and beyond. Oftentimes, that can mean cheaper rates and more opportunity to secure the ideal venue for target dates.

The Obstacles in Planning a Conference

1. Budgets may be smaller in many cases for conferences.

Especially when planning a convention for an association, planners may not enjoy the budgetary flexibility they do with trade shows and conferences. That means less room for negotiation in the proposal process with venues and caterers. As a result, association events may get passed up by venues who would rather not dismiss the potential for a more lucrative group booking.

2. Conventions encompass a wide variety of events. 

No two conventions are the same. And sure, you might be thinking, “well neither are any two conferences.” But when it comes down to it, planning a convention could mean planning a national meeting of high school teachers, a fraternity gathering, or a gathering of science fiction fans. Each of these events is going to be radically different than the next at every level of planning, and that means planners need to be ready to adapt.  

Tips for Planning a Successful Convention

1. Use your timeline to help you negotiate.

As we mentioned, more often than not, planning a convention means stretching the dollars. However, it also comes with a longer planning timeline than many other major events. Savvy planners can use this to their advantage, securing venues, caterers, and other suppliers early in the game at lower rates.

An Example of How to Do it Right

Comic Con International in San Diego is the crown jewel of fan conventions, prized for its ability to bring fans and their heros together. Its unique combination of compelling sessions, fanfare exhibitions, and surprises around each corner make it exactly what avid fans want. And it pays off when they show up in the thousands, costumed, highly engaged, and ready to spread the word.


Hopefully that cleared things up…

Trade shows, conferences, and conventions are all major undertakings. But with an understanding of the unique challenges and characteristics of each, you’ll be ready to meet (and dare we say exceed?) the expectations of attendees and stakeholders alike. 

Just remember: This is only the tip of the iceberg. You can find plenty more information on each type of event on our blog.

Have more questions about trade shows, conferences, and conventions?

What is the difference between a convention and a conference?Conferences are mostly focused on exchanging information and education. Conventions are typically based around membership (either official or unofficial), and are used to set agendas for the coming year or to discuss issues of interest.

What is the major difference between a convention center and a hotel conference center?The main difference is that a conference center usually has lodging attached to it, and offers a higher level of service for its events than a convention center. A conference center typically has several types of meeting rooms, whereas a convention center will typically consist only of exhibition halls.

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