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Trade shows vs conventions vs conferences – What’s the difference?

Trade shows, conferences, and conventions are all big event types within the meetings and marketing industries. Despite being commonplace, many people do not seem to be aware of the main differences between them. In this article we’ll break down the nuances and highlight the key features and advantages of each one to give you a better understanding, so you know the kind of stand and equipment you need to make a positive impression.

What is a trade show?

A tradeshow can be defined as an exhibition for businesses in a specific industry to showcase and promote their latest products or services to their target audience. Bigger trade shows might include some of the learning opportunities of a conference, such as speakers, group activities, and more. Most of the educational parts of a trade show are likely to be hosted by sponsors who are already promoting at the exhibition or who serve in the industry of focus. In a lot of cases, you can think of them as educational adverts.

What are the benefits of a trade show?

You can get the attention of your target audience

Visitors at a trade show are looking to learn about the recent and best in industry-related offerings, from new technologies to key services that can help make their lives easier. This means that it is a big draw for companies who want to reach a specific audience due to the highly targeted nature of those who are attending. After all, most, if not all attendees, at the trade show are likely to be potential customers.

There is the opportunity to network

As well as being a great way to meet visitors, trade shows are also useful for greeting suppliers and learning more about your competitors. This will help you to get an idea of what is working well for your target audience, and so enable you to fit your marketing and event strategy to effectively communicate to them and encourage them to choose your business ahead of your competitors.

trade shows, conventions, and conferences

Are there any obstacles to planning a trade show?

Your design doesn’t work with your event space

It is important to know the exact size and location of your exhibition stand in advance of the event. This is because you could be planning a large and elaborate design for your exhibition stand and then find you are unable to accommodate it in the space you have been allocated at the venue. As a result, your stand may not be as successful in attracting your target audience, consequently posing the risk of them visiting your competition instead. Striking the right balance, with your unique design and space, will set you apart from the rest and help you be successful.

Top tips for planning a successful trade show

Make the most of your space

Normally, a trade show venue will consist of one big exhibition hall with several businesses competing for the attention of visitors. This means you will want your space to feel unique and tailored to your message and identity as a company. To achieve this, you will need to be creative with your exhibition stand. Why not use striking light boxes to grab attention from afar, whilst including portable walls to create a personalised space to keep the attention focused on you and your products or services. Playing with décor, lighting, and sound on your exhibition stand can help you communicate your brand and message in a vibrant, interactive and engaging way.

Plan it out early

Ideally, you will have plenty of time to plan for the trade show you’re attending and identify how you will promote your products and services effectively to your audience. Ensure that you understand where your business will be positioned in the venue in relation to where the visitors will be and how you can use elements of your stand to draw their attention over to you and away from your competitors.

What is a conference?

Whilst a trade show focuses on multiple vendors and the opportunity for visitors to walk around and explore new product offerings, a conference is about the exchange of information. This can happen in many different ways, but typically the purpose of a conference is education.

For example, user conferences are hosted by big service providers to inform users, whereas academic conferences can bring together leading experts in a certain field. Industry-specific conferences invite visitors to learn, increase their knowledge and skills, and better themselves in a professional way.

What are the benefits of a conference?

They offer flexibility

Not every conference has to follow the same pattern. If they did, conveying information to the audience would become boring and ineffective as visitors wouldn’t necessarily remain focused to absorb the content being delivered. When planning a conference, you have the flexibility to think creatively and try various locations or design styles that will grab and maintain your audience’s attention. You have complete creativity with the only remit being that you are educating your audience, giving you a real opportunity to have an impact.

Visitor engagement

This relates to the previous benefit in that the attendees of a conference are paying good money to be there and are wanting to learn. So, you can expect them to want to interact and engage with you throughout the conference as long as you have made the effort to ensure the event is interesting and useful for them. By creating an event worth sharing and talking about (maybe even adding a clever hashtag) the visitors will help you organically extend your reach and spread positive word of mouth.

Are there any obstacles to planning a conference?

Booking speakers can be difficult

Despite break out sessions, networking, and even entertainment becoming a big part of the modern conference experience, it is still all about the content, and that begins with great speakers. Finding good speakers isn’t always easy though. The process includes a cycle of research, refinement, outreach, and negotiation. Without the right speakers, a conference won’t deliver on its aims and the message will be unclear and confusing to visitors.

Top tips for planning a successful conference

Include time for breaks

Conferences can be intense with session after session, speaker after speaker, endless networking, and the constant stimulation of modern technology. It’s extremely draining and enough to make anyone need a break. So, it is important when planning your conference that you include spaces and times where visitors can unwind. Some events achieve this by adding technology-free zones and quiet eating areas.

Encourage networking with your design

In a modern world where people are always glued to their screens, people attend conferences for face-to-face interactions. A big part of that interaction is the several in-person meetings that are scheduled at major events. Large scale conferences can have hundreds of meetings booked throughout the course of the event. Incorporating unique designs, and using the space effectively, will encourage better networking and set you up for a successful conference.

differences between trade shows, conferences, and conventions

What is a convention?

Where a convention is different from a conference is that it typically centres around membership in some way. It could be a formal meeting of members, representatives, professionals, or even fans. One example is the fan-based convention Comic Con, which takes many various forms in several cities around the country. Aside from fan conventions, most are hosted to put forth an agenda for the coming months or years, or to discuss problems of interest.

What are the benefits of conventions?

Attendance is less of a question mark

With trade shows and conferences, pushing registrations and attendance comes down to successful marketing and spreading the word of your event. However, when planning a convention, your event can have the benefit of including a large pool of members who are likely to attend based on their affiliation with the society or profession.

There is plenty of time for planning

Due to most conventions being annual or bi-annual events, companies have plenty of time to secure venues and source everything that’s required to make sure the convention is successful for you and your visitors. Planning far in advance can mean cheaper rates and more scope to find the perfect venue for your target dates.

Are there any obstacles to planning a convention?

Lack of preparation

It’s easy to fall into the trap of being underprepared for a convention due to the knowledge that the people attending are already interested or affiliated with the industry. Lazy planning and a lack of effort will lead to a lack of engagement and potentially an unsuccessful convention, ultimately risking a negative impact on your marketing and future event plans.

Top tips for planning a successful convention

Plan effectively

It is obvious to visitors when an event has been planned at the last minute, if they don’t have a good experience. Bad ‘word of mouth’ may spread and potentially impact your business. All aspects of a convention need to be well organised to give your audience the best possible experience.


Trade shows, conferences, and conventions can all be beneficial to your business, but they are big undertakings that involve a lot of planning. With a better understanding of the individual challenges and characteristics of each type of event, you will be ready to meet and exceed the expectations of any visitors and will experience a more successful outcome. 

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