The past spring created for most of us a feeling of pandemic panic and business paralysis. Offices were shut down and most employees were asked to work from home. From a pure productivity perspective, it gave a temporary feeling of winning back control of time. Time freed up from commuting and office chit-chat could be used for time outside and inside. By the end of the summer, most of us lost this feeling. By then we knew that less travel and time in the office meant that a higher gear could be put in. Calendars caught up and took control of our lives again, at an even faster pace than before. We have now come to realize that we have fully entered the digital era with all of its possibilities and hazards. There will be no turning back in a post-pandemic world. In January, you will be able to send your avatar to visit ISPO Beijing while you are sitting at home and yet greet the local people in Chinese through your avatar translator.

Our industry is a late digital bloomer. We are among the last digital immigrants, more like refugees from an analog country – just before borders closed as the digital world became too crowded. Some of you have realized how far behind the digital natives we are, but for most of us, the brutal wake-up is yet to come. Learning to communicate, budget, plan production, etc., in the new era is very much like learning a new culture and language.

Does it also include a new business model? Many believe that digitalizing their business means converting to a direct-to-consumer distribution model. As bookkeeping routines are updated to include new KPIs like the cost of online sales, shipments and the handling of cross-border returns, it’s a tough lesson that whatever margin remains is mostly far smaller than it would be in your traditional B2B model. Hopefully, not too many retail partnerships will have been burnt by then. I’m convinced that physical retailing will still be around for a while. But I also believe that we need to switch to a “digital-first” approach, meaning going to online retailers who were once persona non grata. They now top the target lists of most brands. Offline retailing needs to be redefined. For example, rentals, second-hand and local fulfillment with added sales services might be the components of future retail formulas.

The sell-in season for SS21 taught us that sales meetings and pre-order meetings with existing B2B customers work also online, without the need to travel each season to meet and show our new collections. Sending samples or showing them via screens has been working better than expected, saving time at both ends of the supply chain, but it is of course an extra constraint when we launch new materials and other innovations. We are likely to see more carry-overs to the next season and a slowdown in the development of new styles, colors and materials at the B2B stage. Big sports brands like Adidas and Nike, which no longer have big stands at trade shows, are “dropping” new product releases all the time at the B2C level while developing special make-ups for their key wholesale partners. Down the road, simultaneous digital launches at the B2B and B2C levels will be far less rigid than the traditional analog ordering procedures. 

But will it work also to win new accounts and establish new customer relations in a digitalized market?

Your first thought is probably “How will this be possible without TRADE SHOWS? Where can we find new customers without a place to meet and present ourselves and our products?” At digital trade shows like the upcoming ISPO Munich Online, it is actually likely to be easier, cheaper and more effective. All stands now have equal positions with the same size and look. Buyers entering your stand identify themselves, don’t need to run between meetings but can sit at home, search for new products and suppliers in product films and workbooks, search-optimized by brand, material and product categories.

Actually, the big question at trade shows was never how to find new customers but how to maximize the chances that they could find you. Digitally, we have to think different from making our stands look more impressive and eye-catching. You already invest in search optimization and digital marketing to drive traffic to your webshop; you need to do the same for your B2B business as well.

Here are my top ten tips:

 1. Directories will dominate. At the digital shows, you will need an “SEO and SEM strategy.”

Trade show directories will be search-word indexed, so you need to make sure all your key brands, product names and key features are easy to find in order to win the search and lead the clients to you. By investing in SEM activities (banners, show seminars, etc.) you win brand visibility and increase the chances of catching attention.

 2. Activate your network. We are not a big industry; your second circle of connections is likely to know some of your prospects. Ask for help from those who can help you with introductions.

 3. Recommendations and referrals rule online, and also in the B2B space. Respected retailers are not only your customers but your best ambassadors and influencers, serving as a sign of approval for your new business targets.

 4. Research Google and LinkedIn! Travel online. You can easily visit any country digitally. Read online mags to see which retailers and distributors advertise.

 5. In most markets, former executives are available for hire on a consulting and/or affiliate basis. From them, you can learn about margins, specific market mechanics, door-opening and introductions. You probably use ambassadors to help win trust from new consumers. Try it for B2B!

 6. Head-hunting and recruiting services. Ever tried it for B2B?

 7. B2B press releases and interviews, media and newsletter advertising. Say that you are coming and looking for business partners!

 8. Join online match-making programs. Besides digital trade shows, Covid-19 has also ignited some creative ways to find new business. The Taiwan textile association and the Korean sports and outdoor industry association (KOIA) have grown tired of canceled shows and launched online match-making programs with hundreds of companies all over the world.

 9. Join the portals and platforms. SIMA, the surf industry association in the U.S., has managed to get its industry to use the same digital software tools to replace all printed workbooks, pricelists, etc. Besides saving tons of paper, this simplifies the sourcing and sales process when the whole industry gathers on the same platform.

10. Artificial Intelligence, further down the digital road. AI and robots will make our business behavior simpler and more efficient. This is when we will finally catch up with our calendars. This is when we will no longer be needed. Until then, let’s enjoy doing what we do. But also online.

 (*) Martin Kössler is one of the new shareholders of EDM Publications, publisher of SGI Europe, which has become more digital since he stepped in. Martin is a well-known international business expert in the sports and outdoor sector. In his role as a business angel and as a member of several boards of directors, he provides insights into international market development and advises decision-makers on business strategies. He leads a global network of international executive industry consultants at Helping You Grow International Business (HuginBiz®) and represents international trade shows in our industry.