The Future of Live Exhibitions in a Digital World | Ungerboeck

Ungerboeck is now Momentus Technologies. Learn more at


skip to main content
The Future of Live Exhibitions in a Digital World
15 Min Read

The Future of Live Exhibitions in a Digital World

By Nick Dugdale-Moore, Regional Director – Europe, UFI

Exhibitions play a vital role in business and in life, as they have done for centuries. For example, if you look at the floorplan of one of the first trade shows of the modern era - the Great Exhibition held in London’s Crystal Palace in 1851 - you will notice that not much has changed. It looks very similar to any modern exhibition floor plan. Why? Because exhibitions work. It’s a great business, the perfect way for companies and communities to come together, network, learn and find new products and services.

Great Exhibition 1851 floor plan

The Great Exhibition held in London’s Crystal Palace in 1851

Before the global pandemic, in terms of total economic impact, the exhibitions industry had grown to be the equivalent of the 56th largest economy worldwide, supporting a total GDP of $197.5USD billion and generating $325USD billion of total output (business sales). However, that is not to say that everything was perfect. Some major shows ended abruptly, CeBIT in Hannover and Interbike in Las Vegas come to mind, and despite the very positive economic outcome, the rise of technology and digitization was already impacting the industry.

Businesses were looking for new ways to connect and engage with their customers, stakeholders, and peers, and demanding more data-led ROI than just the random contact model that many trade shows provided. Exhibition organizers were forced to find innovative ways to remain competitive and attract exhibitors and visitors to their events, simultaneously trying to digitize their companies, their events, and their products. A plethora of digital tools & products competed for their attention and business which were deployed with varying degrees of success.

COVID-19: The Black Swan Event

The COVID-19 pandemic was a brutal turning point for the events and exhibitions industry. Within just a few months all events globally were suspended, exhibitions for the most part being classified as “mass gatherings” and high-risk activities. UFI data reported on the economic impact:

  • €158 billion ($180 billion) of total output and 1.9 million jobs in exhibition and tourism-related activities were affected.
  • €260 billion ($296 billion) worth of contracts between exhibition participants weren’t generated because of the shows not taking place.

As venues closed their doors, exhibition organizers had to pivot to digital platforms, and virtual and hybrid exhibitions became the new normal. Conferences managed this transition with some success, but digital exhibitions fared much worse. Most used a combination of webinars and smaller online events to keep in contact with their communities while postponing the live exhibition until it was safe to return.

But now that the pandemic is waning, what does the future of events and exhibitions look like? Do visitors and exhibitors want to come back to in-person events? Can digital replace face-to-face meetings?

Comparing Digital Events to Live Events

Together with Explori, UFI surveyed the industry and asked both visitors and exhibitors to rate the quality of virtual events compared to live events. The survey gathered over 15,000 respondents globally.

From the event attendees/visitors’ perspective, the overall answers have shown that people see more benefits in attending live and in-person events. While online events are cheaper and easier to attend, respondents expressed that they didn’t provide the same opportunities to find inspiration, meet new suppliers, and do business. Furthermore, they didn’t feel the online experiences offered the same sense of belonging to a community, nor did they make it easy to form new connections and network with their peers.

Similarly, exhibitors have also shared a clear preference for live events. For example, 86% said live events are better for the quality of networking required to generate sales leads and return on investment.

So, given the feedback from both visitors and exhibitors, digital events do not compare with face-to-face events. Whilst the pandemic forced businesses to trial other channels and virtual or hybrid events, nothing has been able to match the level of networking, brand exposure and lead generation opportunities that companies would get from exhibiting in person.

The Great Comeback of Live Events?

After almost three years of navigating the pandemic, people are experiencing Zoom fatigue and missing in-person interactions. As a result, 72% of existing visitors have told UFI that they plan to attend live trade shows with the same or increased frequency. In addition, 62% of exhibitors revealed that they plan to exhibit with the same or increased frequency.

Given the keen interest in live exhibitions from visitors and exhibitors alike, and the fact that the economic impacts of COVID-19 are starting to fade, 45% of exhibitors expect budgets to return to normal levels within 12 months.

So, despite the necessary push towards hybrid and digital elements at the pandemic's peak, it seems like COVID confirmed the value of face-to-face events, sparking even more positivity for a strong return of live exhibitions. All our research and reports point to the same conclusion – we see no evidence for a long-term shift away from live events.

The Recovery

According to estimates, the exhibitions industry will return to pre-pandemic figures by 2024. However, because of the rush and demand to go back to live events, some expect figures to return to pre-pandemic levels by 2023, with revenues expected to grow by +173% globally in 2022 (compared to 2021).

New Challenges Emerging in the Exhibitions Industry

Now that COVID isn’t the top issue that keeps exhibitors awake at night anymore, there are some other challenges that are increasing in importance.

  1. Human resources and staff shortages - Globally, more than 50% of companies had to reduce their workforce during the pandemic, and supply chains have been decimated. With the shift to digital events, event professionals who remained were expected to organize events that almost looked like TV shows, requiring a completely different skillset that they didn’t have before. The past two years have been extremely challenging, and now that things are starting to pick up again, the industry is struggling to re-hire the staff it needs to organize events. The exhibitions industry used to be dependable and reliable. Now, new hires might see the events and exhibitions industry as a dangerous and uncertain place to work.
  2. Business model adjustmentsTypically venues relied on revenue from live events, but throughout the pandemic, they were forced to implement digital elements like on-demand recordings and other hybrid elements. Looking to the future, venues need to consider how they can continue to leverage and monetize these digital elements to expand the benefits for attendees and increase the yield of live events.
  3. Impact of digitization – Events are forever evolving in response to advancements in technology and changes to customer needs. Venues who wish to remain competitive within the exhibitions industry need to take a proactive approach and continue reviewing and improving their systems, processes, and customer experiences in line with new digital products.


Even though COVID changed the events industry overnight, now that the impacts of the pandemic are diminishing, the events industry is returning to a new version of “normal” and the fundamentals haven't changed. Moreover, the digital transformation and learning curve we have been through in the past two years has helped us develop better processes, given us new ways to connect to our communities year-round, and opened new digital revenue streams.

As human beings, do we want to go to a concert, a sports event, a social event since the pandemic? Exhibitions are no different. Visitors and exhibitors alike are desperate to reconnect, to feel the buzz of the show floor again - because there is no better environment for networking and doing business. This is something that cannot be replicated online, and I think we all have an intrinsic appreciation for that now which we might have missed before.

So, are we all going to sail off into Mark Zuckerberg’s bright new Metaverse future? There's no evidence of it right now, thank goodness

About the author

Nick Dugdale-Moore

Nick Dugdale-Moore is the Regional Manager for Europe at UFI, the Global Association of the Exhibition Industry. He is responsible for UFI’s more than 300 members in Europe, organising the annual UFI European Conference and promoting and representing the European exhibition industry internationally.

He joined UFI in 2010 as head of Business Development, looking after sponsorship and commercial partnerships for all of UFI's global portfolio of events and activities. A fluent speaker of Spanish and Portuguese, he set up UFI’s Latin American Chapter in 2014.