A Brief History of Trade Shows

The trade show: a grand exhibition where companies of a certain industry come together and showcase their latest products and services, taking note of the industry’s latest advances and market trends. Trade shows are places where companies can learn from their competitors, catch the eye of seasoned professionals in the industry, and map out opportunities still to be explored. Not all are open to the public, but all offer the opportunity for a company to be seen by the industry it operates in—and maybe even get press exposure. Here is a brief history of trade shows.

Today’s trade shows trace their roots back to the 12th century in late medieval Europe, a time which saw the beginnings of merchant capitalism. It was an era that spurred some of the earliest developments of modern-day capitalism as an economic and social system. Under merchant capitalism, farmers, craftsmen, and merchants would visit towns and come together for trading fairs in order to showcase and sell their products. This form of capitalism continued to grow over the centuries, seeing significant economic force in the 16th century and giving way to industrial capitalism by the beginning of the 19th century. But even then, the practice of trade shows and exhibitions continued, especially in Europe and North America, so that industry leaders could showcase the latest advances being made in manufacturing and technology.

Now, in a fast-paced time when the only constant is change, trade shows hold more clout than ever. Asia in particular sees a remarkably high number of trade shows due to recent rapid industrialization of the region. The trade show has gone from a mere marketing opportunity for companies to key marketing investments. Today, companies reserve a significant portion of their marketing budgets to purchasing space rental at trade shows, designing and constructing elaborate trade show displays, printing promotional materials for attendees, and covering travel and accommodations expenses for those involved. And when these companies plan for an appearance at a trade show, they are sure to leave an impact. Now, trade show booths are more elaborate and innovative than ever, with custom graphics; creative, attention-grabbing designs; and hands-on, interactive technology to keep booth visitors occupied.

The latest advancement in trade show history? The virtual trade show. Now, more and more industries are taking their latest product and technological demonstrations online, in a format that remains live on the web for a set time period. At virtual trade shows, companies develop virtual trade show booths, hold web conferences, explore other company booths as avatars of themselves, and create educational presentations that are viewable online—much like at their physical counterparts.

Though the world of trade shows is changing at an ever-increasing rate, one thing is for sure: they will continue to stand the test of time.


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