It’s pretty straight forward right – an exhibition is when a group of sellers gather in one location to be visited by an audience of interested buyers to stimulate future business transactions. Although is that a trade show, or are they different things?  And if you throw in some live presentations, a demonstration and a key note speaker does that make it a conference? Or if people are getting together on a one-to-one, or one-to-few basis to talk about a project or business idea, does it become a meeting? Confused? Don’t worry we’re right at the very heart of it and sometimes even we’re not sure what to expect from the label an event gives itself! So does it even matter?  Here are our thoughts to help you cut through some of the industry jargon!


Nope not the white, furry kind, or the plastic, clicky kind,  M.I.C.E. stands for Meetings,brown-rat-eating-food-2189599.jpg Incentives, Conventions/ Conference and Exhibitions (see we can’t even agree on that definition!) and represents any live face-to-face event. The Incentive part always seems a little bit disjointed to me but covers sales team reward trips or prizes for example. M.I.C.E. in its purest form is heavily weighted to the travel and tourism of such events so hotels, venue and transport booking but as with most things the lines are blurring and we’re starting to see more holistic coverage of live events. Despite the travel bias it is a useful tool for organisations when they’re starting to think about their event strategy for the year, to help understand the different tactics available and how they might contribute to delivering the key business objectives.


The terms trade show has been around for centuries and has its roots in travelling merchants who arrived in a specific town on a specific day to present their goods to sell  to the public. Trade shows historically were very much rooted in business being done on the day with cash exchanging hands. As business and industry became more sophisticated trade shows were less about small cash deals on the day, but securing larger volume transactions based on deep-cut pricing. I remember in my early career with a US based food manufacturer, attending trade shows where the Buy One Get One Free deals weren’t  being done on cases or even pallets, but in some cases on whole lorry loads of goods.



As the sales landscape has changed, so has our general response to being ‘sold’ to as we become more savvy not just as consumers, but also as B2B buyers. The resources are endless for us all to research the best deals, the fastest delivery time and the most highly rated customer service so there’s less desire for us to hear that from suppliers. Our real priority in the current era is to understand how products and services solve our problems or make our lives easier. In response, exhibitions have become much more about touching, feeling, tasting and experiencing for ourselves the value a product or service delivers but with very low on-the-day purchase intent. We want to engage with suppliers who are passionate about their products but who have empathy with our problem …. but for  exhibitors who haven’t yet transitioned to a new way of exhibiting, there are often complaints of empty order books after a long day on their feet.


We visited a show recently that had 17 live feature areas….17!!  As a business that regularly pulls together seminar programmes for event organisers I can only imagine the logistical headache that creates, not only for organisers, but for the visitors. We often talk about quality over quantity in relation to exhibitions and the same is true for content.  Visitors can’t be in 17 places at once and trying to work out which sessions you want to go to just becomes overwhelming – they all just blur into one!  And whilst the sponsorship of each theatre might feel like a lucrative commercial opportunity, the dilution of the message potentially makes it meaningless as sponsors just become one of a pack.

But are live seminar areas within exhibitions actually conferences – probably not in theirmeeting-83519_1920.jpg purest form. In our experience, live feature areas are there to deliver snap-shots of practical, relevant and inspiring knowledge around the key industry topics – taster sessions to help visitors learn something new.  A conference traditionally has a much more formal, almost corporate feel with a clear programme of industry experts and professionals delivering more in-depth insight and knowledge.

That’s not to say the speakers at exhibitions aren’t experts – it is the tone and content that is usually different. Say an organisation wants to demonstrate that they are leading the field in clinical research on a particular drug in order to secure additional funding. They could spend an hour at a medical exhibition sharing the in-depth analysis and outcomes…. to a transient group of semi-relevant visitors who may or may not be their target market. Alternatively, they could secure a place on the agenda at a conference of leading medical research associations which provides a closed and targeted audience. Maybe they could drop a few highlights at the exhibition, invite the press along and then use that coverage to help leverage a place on the conference agenda. And yes conferences can run alongside exhibitions, but not usually in the same halls.


Expo seems to be growing in popularity these days – maybe because we’re all getting a bit lazy and like shortening things, or maybe it’s just a bit funkier than boring, old exhibition. To be honest, it’s the one I find most troublesome and can’t really get my head around. Some say Expo has to be global / international – but surely it you even get one international visitor at an event it’s international?

According to the Bureau International des Expositions, Expos are:

                               ”…global events dedicated to finding solutions to fundamental challenges facing humanity by offering a journey inside a chosen theme through engaging and immersive activities…”

Anyone any clearer – I’m certainly not!  I prefer the more simple Collins definition of:

                  ” An expo is a large event where goods, especially industrial goods, are displayed….” 

Although doesn’t that take us right back to exhibitions?

audience-945449_1920 (1)


And so we end with the plethora of other weird and wonderful idioms that are creeping in to show how cool, different and exciting an event is going to be.  With face to face marketing proving ever more powerful, who can blame organisers for striving to cut through the noise and get their event noticed in a crowded market place. Yet when you cut back to the bones of some of these events despite all their promise of differentiation, it’s often businesses who want to sell, gathering in one location to which a relevant audience is attracted through a combination of interesting live content and new product innovations…. is that an exhibition then?

What I’m absolutely not intending in this piece is to say that any tactic is good, bad, or better or worse than any other! There are some fantastic examples of events delivering brilliantly for visitors in all these areas – keep up the good work. My plea as always is to those investing in these events to really think strategically about which gives you the best opportunity to achieve your results – who do you need to speak to, what’s their problem and which event gives you the best chance of articulating that you’re the solution. And if the Lunar La-La Trip Around The Sun Symposium gives you the best chance of that – then invest the hell out of it! Bottom line, it doesn’t matter what it’s called if it does the right job for you.

Oh and of course there’s the annoying overlap with those frightfully modern art installations and displays calling themselves exhibitions, and those people who like to strip off in public calling themselves exhibitionists but that’s a whole different blog post!

If you’re struggling to understand what the right live event mix is to power up your 2020 marketing strategy,  why not get in touch and we’ll help you find the clarity to plan a year of effective and actionable events that make a difference to your bottom line – call us today on 07891 122542! 

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