What the IFA 2020 taught us about tech trade shows post-Covid

What the IFA 2020 taught us about tech trade shows post-Covid

Are you all-too-familiar with long, drawn-out meetings discussing matters which could actually have been settled via email? If I wanted to look at this situation negatively, I could have said that IFA 2020 could simply have been a press release or one large-scale online keynote. Doing so would be simplistic though, and partially inaccurate.

The first thing that I had in mind concerning this year's show was the main thought that shaped this article. I planned to join my colleague David at the south entrance of the "Messe Berlin" complex, the exhibition center in which the IFA is held. It's a Wednesday morning, starting early in order to take a walk through the entire exhibition as well as sit in on the four or five conferences that were planned for that day.

And as soon as I arrived, I saw this musician duo trying as best they could to drum up the atmosphere a notch at the entrance in an almost completely deserted lounge. The scene immediately reminded me of the famous snippet from the Titanic movie, where a group of musicians who sensed the imminent and inevitable sinking of the great vessel, decided to go for one final hurrah before the ship sunk to its watery grave.

We cannot associate IFA 2020 with that of a shipwreck, although we might want to venture the thought that the "new" hybrid format, where it mixes up the physical space as well as that of the digital realm, is not exactly the innovation that we have been promised.

A first-time lesson or a desperate attempt?

Initially, when it was announced by the organizers of IFA 2020 that the show would be closed to the public, only 800 journalists were expected to obtain accreditation to enter the premises and cover the trade show. Overall, the number of participants for each day of the exhibition was not to exceed 1,000 people, in order to remain well within the guidelines that were imposed by the Berlin authorities when it comes to gatherings.

Given the attendance over the two days that I spent there, I seriously doubt that this quota was ever reached. If we were to take France into the equation, the restrictive measures that were imposed by German authorities prevented almost all of the French delegations from coming. The same goes for the communications teams of the various manufacturers.

Honor, TCL, and Realme were among the only ones to have proposed keynotes with speakers who were able to be physically present. As for the rest, most of the conferences happened in the digital realm and were transmitted live, so there was no need to be on-site to follow them.

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No, I wasn't early to this TCL keynote for IFA 2020. / © NextPit

Let's not even talk about the booths, of which Huawei's booth happened to be the only one that stood out simply because they had more floor presence than anyone else. But in any case, there was nothing really interesting or new that deserved a physical launch. There were very few, if any, opportunities for a hands-on experience unlike other tradeshows in the pre-Covid era, and we were able to cover all grounds around the unique exhibition hall in just a single afternoon.

It is a stark contrast like night and day when I think back to IFA 2019 and my long hours of walking and running from one hall to the other as I kept in touch with my press contacts. Being constantly on the move ensured that I got in my 10,000 daily steps easily, as my busyness resulted in me postponing each appointment by up to a quarter of an hour, as I was simply lost in the immense scale of the show.

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Huawei's booth, a rare sliver of normality at IFA 2020. / © NextPit

At the same time, it would be unfair to judge IFA 2020 based on its past editions. Of course, health precautions and the many unforeseen events did not allow the tradeshow to deliver experiences that are similar to the past in terms of scale and showmanship.

It is far too large a task to imagine a new format for an event of this magnitude, and it can only be hoped that everything goes well the first time. However, I have far more doubts about the physical segment of the tradeshow as opposed to the digital one.

So will there be IFA next year or not?

For a tradeshow like IFA, it has to be experienced live. It is a special experience for any journalist who attends, in addition to technophiles. Being able to exchange information with manufacturers, to have hands-on sessions with products, to meet up with colleagues in the industry - all of these are in no way comparable to a keynote that you watch via YouTube while working remotely, wallowing on your couch dressed in your pajamas.

It is precisely this physical segment that has suffered the most in the implementation of the new hybrid format. There just wasn't enough to go around to justify our presence there. It's horrible to be at a trade show as a journalist and find yourself in the middle of the afternoon with nothing to write about.

The most interesting product that I've been able to get my hands on would be the Satisfy Air Pulse Pro 2, a connected sex toy of which I obtained the press release, but I simply could not try it out as it was specially designed for women! Seriously, I'm really not exaggerating, the Satisfy booth was THE event in the Exhibition Hall. That is quite a damning indication of the relative sadness of what the other booths had to offer.

On the other hand, IFA 2020 was quite successful in providing alternative communication channels for those who were unable to make the trip, one reason or another. Some manufacturers, such as Honor, have asked their communications team in Paris to broadcast the conference to selected French journalists on their premises. They were even able to enjoy a hands-on session with some of the products.

The organization has also set up a 100% digital segment of the show known as IFA Xtended. This is available via the event's official website, being a digital hub that brings together virtual booths of several exhibitors who were unable to be hosted at the tradeshow.

Virtual demos, keynotes, and even hands-on demonstrations - the goal was to offer those who were absent at IFA 2020 with an opportunity to attend as if they were there in person. It is truly an inclusive effort by the organizer that I can only applaud, and they pulled it off with great aplomb.

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In IFA Xtended you can move virtually between the different booths. / © IFA Berlin

However, for the hybrid dimension of the IFA to really work well, the physical segment of the show must be made more attractive. I'm not talking about the health and social distancing measures, which are indispensable and which have, moreover, been respected rather well on the whole.

I'm talking about making it attractive enough for people to want to attend, whether they are journalists or otherwise, but above all, ensure the participation of industry professionals. It takes more than a single hall to accommodate just fifteen booths. But all these will only be possible if the organizer persists and defends its track record, so as to reassure major brands like Samsung, for whom the South Korean company figured out that it was not worth taking a gamble with the health of their employees and tradeshow attendees.

Hence, this IFA 2020 is a bit of a mixed bag, mainly for circumstantial reasons. But there is no doubt that the organizer will have to redouble its efforts to make this event even more attractive, regardless of how much easier it would be for manufacturers to host their own live keynotes.

I sincerely hope I can return next year and not have to watch IFA 2021 on YouTube.

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