On Sunday, I walked ICFF, the International Contemporary Furniture Fair with a small group of faculty and students from where I teach. While there, I bumped into Grace Bonney from Design*Sponge. Grace mentioned that she was pretty disappointed with the lack of innovation at this years show. I felt the show was pretty lackluster, considering that a week later, the only things that I remember being excited about were faux scrapwood wallpaper (which I thought would be great to use in my own trade show booth) and that Shapeways is now printing in ceramic.
Grace put together a fantastic video with her thoughts on the show, and it brought up a lot of great questions and discussion. So yesterday I sat down and recorded my own response:
For me, the real discussion centers on two key ideas:
The first is the economics of trade shows. The cost of doing a show like ICFF is prohibitively expensive for a lot of small independent designers. A lot of the discussion has centered around whether or not there is enough return on investment to warrant doing a show like ICFF. But I think the bigger problem isn’t ROI, it’s cash flow. If you spend the money to do the show, will you have enough money to continue running your business while you wait for the payoff from the show?
The second is that I think shows aren’t doing enough to help independent designers transition into more established businesses. Many people mentioned that ICFF could add a section of smaller, more affordable booths just for independent or emerging designers. I think this makes sense from the standpoint of bringing in new, innovative work. It’s a strategy that I’m seeing at a lot of other trade shows. But I think where a lot of shows fall short is helping those who exhibit in this type of scenario transition into the larger show. There’s often a limit to how long you can have one of these booths, and then you’re forced onto the main show floor. But for a lot of designers, one to two years may not be enough time to make the leap to a booth that is two or three times the cost. What can we do after we’ve brought in independent and emerging designers to help them continue to innovate as they make the transition to a “regular” booth at the show?
I believe there will always be a need for trade shows when it comes to the business of buying and selling products. Nothing replaces the experience of seeing an object in person. And nothing replaces building face to face connections with people. Video comes close, but it’s still not the same. It’s the same reason people still go to conferences. Despite all our reliance on technology and social media, we still crave physical connections with people and objects. The business model and logistics that support trade shows may need to change, but the fundamental reason they exist won’t.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this and the discussion taking place on Design*Sponge:
What can we do to promote more innovation at trade and design shows?
And do you think trade shows are dead or do you still see a value in them?