V-Commerce And The Future Of Trade Fairs

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I’ve seen the future and am afraid that it may include the Mop Manufacture Live Show.  For years and years the discussions have been going round in circles: panic, panic, the virtual events monster is going to each my lunch. Phew, no it didn’t. The virtual events weren’t very good. Panic, panic, the AI blockchain virtual events monster going to eat my lunch. Phew, no it didn’t as that version of the monster was too confused to know how he might be useful. “Human beings are social animals, blah blah”. I’ve seen the future and am afraid that it may include the Mop Manufacture Live Show.  For years and years the discussions have been going round in circles: panic, panic, the virtual events monster is going to each my lunch. Phew, no it didn’t. The virtual events weren’t very good. Panic, panic, the AI blockchain virtual events monster going to eat my lunch. Phew, no it didn’t as that version of the monster was too confused to know how he might be useful. “Human beings are social animals, blah blah”.

The Covid-19 crisis has raised the volume on the virtual events discussion to new highs. We’ve seen multiple, often hurried efforts to salvage something of the 2020 season by shifting all or part of an event online. Results have, not surprisingly been mixed and, as various countries ease lockdown and announce re-opening dates for trade fairs, a sigh of relief is beginning to become audible. But, is it premature?

We’ve long been waiting for a secret sauce that will really make virtual trade fairs fly. And no, sorry to those who tried, it wasn’t the avatars zipping around clunky virtual reality recreations of real-world exhibitions. It certainly wasn’t a web page with endless corporate videos masquerading as ‘exciting events’. And, it wasn’t a dull online catalogue that makes an old Yellow Pages directory look like an exciting read. But, it just might be what we’re seeing coming out of China. We’re calling it v-commerce and we’re seeing, for what I believe is the first time, extensive use of interactive live streaming as a B2B sales tool. It’s already big business in the B2C world in China. According to the Nikkei Asian Review, Rmb434 bn (US61.3 billion) was sold via live-streaming last year.

The Nikkei article quotes AliExpress’s Yuan Yuan saying that “livestreaming-based ecommerce helps build trust. When you watch a livestreaming, you can directly interact with the seller and gain a better understanding of the product”. The interaction is at the heart of this. That’s what makes it potentially different and so much more effective than a web-based version of old-fashioned TV shopping channels. With massive restrictions on global travel killing the traditional sourcing fairs at least for this year, China’s army of SME exporters has been desperately looking for ways to interact with its international buyers. The Canton Fairs and other similar events in Hong Kong, Shenzhen, and Dongguan simply won’t be happening this year. China’s Ministry of Commerce, which owns the Canton Fair, appointed video gaming giant (and owner of the WeChat app) Tencent to deliver an online platform. Alibaba, not be outdone, has launched a programme of its own online fairs.

Both rely heavily on interactive livestreams. Alibaba boasts “Real-time Meeting with Exhibitors”. On the first day of the online Canton Fair, the site was boasting over 6,500 simultaneous live streams. So, the project is nothing if not ambitious. There were undoubtedly teething troubles as Reuters reported. And, to suggest that some of the live-streaming efforts were a bit ‘amateur hour’ would be kind.

That being said, anybody who has ever penetrated into the heart of the big sourcing trade fairs will know that they’re not always the epitome of professionalism. But, business still gets done. What we need to know now is whether this is potentially a serious disrupter, particularly to the more transactional end of the B2B trade fair business. Is it working for exhibitors and buyers? Do they see it as an alternative or addition to participating in a traditional exhibition? Or, is it just another technology distraction which ultimately will leave the old-fashioned but remarkably effective trade fair as king of the sourcing castle?
I, together with my colleagues at BSG in Hong Kong, will be looking as deeply as we can into this in the coming weeks. Since it was established 20 years ago, BSG has been following the online disruptors as well as the traditional trade fair business. Is now their hour? We will shortly be publishing an in-depth report looking at this to help to try to answer exactly those questions. Contact me or BSG’s Mark Cochrane if you want to know more or have ideas about this exciting topic.

Paul Woodward is chairman of Paul Woodward Advisory and of Business Strategies Group. He is former Managing Director of UFI and, prior to that, spent 25 years in the events and B2B media industry in Asia.