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It was only a matter of time. Trade shows like Outdoor Retailer, while necessary and wonderful, are also necessarily, wonderfully expensive. When a big show goes south, thousands in the industry feel the sting. Sooner or later, someone was bound to come along with a cheaper, more flexible alternative. Thin Air, the industry’s first truly digital trade show scheduled to run September 15-17, might just be that solution.
Industry leaders have speculated about the possibility of a virtual trade show for years, and some attempts have been made at putting one on. But while those efforts have largely felt like webinars with some light interactivity built in, Thin Air is a completely different animal. Developed by Gearmunk, the outdoor gear review platform and social network, Thin Air is designed to mimic the experience of a show like Outdoor Retailer down to the smallest details, like walking through convention center hallways, introducing yourself to other attendees, even overhearing the conversations of strangers as you stroll past them. The Gearmunk team has managed to build a digital show that recreates the social experience of in-person event in a thrilling, truly engaging way.
Erik Boles, Gearmunk’s CEO, told SNEWS that the virtual world of the show was built on a technology platform that Microsoft, Amazon, IBM, and others have used for large-scale projects. “We’re not disclosing the specifics at this time,” he said. “But it’s one that a lot of the big tech players work with.”
That kind of computing power is necessary, Boles said, because of the incredible level of detail built into Thin Air. Every registered attendee must create an avatar with unique features like gender, skin color, height, weight, and clothing. After entering the event, attendees—which include reps from 400 brands and nearly 1,000 media professionals—explore the open world of the show, walking through custom-programmed booths, presentation halls, and networking areas. Everything is live. The booths are staffed in real time by avatars of brand reps.
“Just like at OR, someone could theoretically walk away from their booth and leave it unstaffed if they wanted to,” Boles said. “There are no restrictions on where you can move and who you can talk to.”
Indeed, talking—for the purposes of networking, presenting, and just enjoying the experience—is a features Boles and his team have worked hard on.
“As you walk through the show, you’ll pass by other people and hear their conversations,” he said. “The whole thing will be filled with spacial, three-dimensional audio. If two people are talking and I walk up between them, I’ll hear two voices through opposite sides of my speakers or headphones. If I turn my back on one person, that voice will get quieter because it’s behind me. You interact with everyone just like you would a regular trade show.”
For now, the show is open only to brands and media professionals, though Boles and his team are “still toying around with the idea of adding retailers to the mix” in future iterations of the event. Either way—whether it remains media-only or evolves into a full-scale trade show—Thin Air represents a “natural step forward for the outdoor industry,” The North Face founder Hap Klopp told SNEWS. In fact, it was “probably overdue” by a few years, he said.
“I love the industry and what we do, but we’re slow to adapt to new ways of doing things. We’re living through an era of digitization that’s going to affect every company in the word, outdoor businesses included. This show is a classic example of inevitable disruption. The industry reached an inflection point caused by a market need. In this case, that need happened to be COVID-19, but even if we weren’t in crisis mode, this would be something that would stand on its own. In the long run, it’s an obvious evolution,” Klopp said.
The benefits are not hard to see. A standard booth at Thin Air costs $1,500—a fraction of a traditional show’s going rate.
“There are thousands of cottage brands making killer gear and nobody has ever heard of them because they can’t afford to go to OR,” Boles said. “Now, they can.”
Nor are exhibitors limited by space restrictions. For $15,000, a company can run an entire exhibition hall the size of a convention center. There is no venue scheduling to deal with, no union requirements to meet, no plane tickets to purchase, no bathrooms to clean, no weather. Exhibitors can program the exact look and feel of their booths, down to the inch.
Perhaps most attractive from a business standpoint, Thin Air also captures attendee data and processes it into analytics for exhibitors. Brands can see exactly who visited their booths, how long those people stayed, what they looked at, who they talked to, and what information they requested.
“I’ve been working on this for months and still, every once in a while, I look at it and go, ‘Holy shit. This is so cool,'” Boles said. “And I’m a tech nerd.”
A new way forward
When Boles first described the idea of a virtual trade show to Klopp, the latter admitted he was a little skeptical.
“Not because I thought it wouldn’t work, but because I wasn’t sure we needed it,” he said. “People are already overloaded with shows. But after talking about it, the benefits are just so clear. This is the way things are going.”
Of course, disruption always comes with growing pains—usually for those in charge of doing things the old way. The solution, Klopp said, is simple. Adapt.
“My general feeling is that every industry rises and declines. Every product has a lifecycle. When your product is trending down, you have to introduce a new one. It might be that large trade shows are a product that needs to be rethought. There’s no reason that OR, for instance, couldn’t transform into something that incorporates more digitization. The question trade show companies need to ask themselves is, are we offering a future-proof product or a dated one?”
Information and imagery can be found on the event website.