Fair of the future

After two years of cancelled trade fairs the design world is reassessing how to move forward. How will we launch and sell products in the future? How can the trade fair renew itself to stay on top of the game? 

What does the trade fair of the future look like? As the world is opening up again, the question of how to operate - as a furniture brand as well as a trade show - is high on the agenda. Philip Fimmano, design curator at trend consultancy Trend Union in Paris, believes there is no turning back to what has been. 

“Both brands and fairs will need to respond to the new age by doing everything differently. We all need to design from hope instead of fear, and that means taking care of each other even while doing business”, he says. 
He believes the fair of the future have to transform itself to a meeting of creative spirits rather than just being a merchandise mart, like in the past. “In our engaged social landscape, the fair must take on a more responsible role, preaching sustainable style, education, collaboration, creativity and human connection”, Fimmano says.
Before the pandemic the design and trade fairs where a constant in industry calendars. A product from the Great Fair in London 1851, the traditional fair calendar was a must to follow.  Salone del Mobile in Milan opened its doors in 1961 and in 2019 – the last fair before the pandemic – it welcomed 380 000 visitors from around the world. With a fear of missing out – or loosing their position in the fair halls - few brands questioned if things could be done differently. When the pandemic brought the industry to a halt, everyone got the opportunity to question the set ways of before and question their actions. Becoming more sustainable as a brand has been a key mission for many. This is something that will bring the whole industry to a change, Fimmano believes. 
”Becoming truly committed to sustainability is much more interesting than returning to the same old cocktail parties and networking events,” he says. ”This means being much more conscious about waste, from recycling the halls’ carpets to the short duration of the fairs which should extend into longer engagements and programming beyond the fairgrounds.”

”Physical fairs enable meetings between people in real life."

- Dag Duberg, Nordic sustainability manager Tarkett

A sustainable future
According to Dag Duberg, Nordic sustainability manager and Kerstin Lagerlöf, marketing manager for Sweden and Norway, at Swedish flooring company Tarkett, they have learnt to be more flexible during the last two years, and to change and adapt according to what’s happening around them. ”The lack of raw materials, the effect on supply chains – all this have been reasons for adaptations and increased flexibility,” they say. Tarkett has also invested in a new showroom in Stockholm, which it uses as a new platform to reach its audience and communicate its message. Sustainability is also high on the Tarkett agenda. By 2030 the company will deliver a 30 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions across its entire value chain.
“Fairs are not flexible in time and place, and they are not sustainable as such– to build up big stands for five days of use is far from sustainable from a material and a financial point of view. Companies will have to evaluate the benefits of participating in an even more thorough way than before. Will the investment be worth it? Is it good for the brand to do a show during five days only?,” Duberg and Lagerlöf ask, adding that a trade show offering ’only commerce' will probably not survive. The fairs need to focus on their unique traits, on things that digital tools don’t have, they argue. ”Physical fairs enable meetings between people in real life. They enable the touch and feel that virtual exhibitions don’t.”

It was a sign of optimism that when in September 2021 Salone del Mobile in Milan proofed that it was possible to unveil a new and more sustainable format in the midst of an ongoing pandemic. The Supersalone, which was fully open to the public for the first time, allowed visitors to purchase products by scanning a QR code and ordering online. The fair introduced a public programme with talks focused on the post-pandemic situation and the delicate relationship between physical presence and online communication. Products was mounted on a series of parallel walls designed by architect Andrea Caputo, which replaced the traditional branded booths. 

“The new platform is a new way to engage our audience and the design community,” says Marco Sabetta, the general manager at Salone del Mobile Milano. It was also a way to expand the focus and debate on sustainability. ”The pandemic has left us a great sense of responsibility towards our planet and the awareness that this approach is crucial because everything cannot be as it was before. Supersalone was our first attempt to face it systematically as a fair.”

For the 60th edition in June 2022, sustainability will continue to be the core of the agenda for Salone del Mobile. Besides a public installation around recycling and circular economy, the fair will be working with Asal, the outfitters’ association, to draw up guidelines for exhibitors building the stands.

The hybrid fair
While brands have explored new ways of communicating outside the traditional fair calendar, not only visitors have changed their behaviours, but many furniture companies have examined their ways of working. Many brands have invested in new digital tools and explored ways to launch products through their digital channels. While the home interior market has flourished in many countries, and companies have reached all-time highs in sales during the pandemic, it’s not been as straight forward to launch new products without the platform of a fair.  A new breed of fairs and initiatives - like Dutch Design Week in 2020, VDF by Dezeen and Surface Tension World - has seized the opportunity to inspire visitors in new ways by combining the digital with the physical. 
"Whilst people weren’t always physically together, they were able to connect, interact and engage with one another – united by values of community, purpose and inspiration,” says Britt Berden, the art director of The Future Laboratory in London. According to her, a hybrid approach is the future of events, fairs and shows. ”The virtual spaces have provided new kind of opportunities and ways to engage and connect in collective ways we have not seen before.” The digital fair is where there is a massive opportunity to bolster access as well as amplify exclusivity and inclusion, Berden believes, whilst the physical event space is where resources can be shared as well as driving collaboration whilst reducing the environmental impact of shows.

Context and culture
Moving ahead, fairs need to take advantage of the fact that people are now itching to travel again for inspiration and reconnecting, according to Hanna Nova Beatrice, Project Area manager at Stockholm Furniture & Light Fair and Stockholm Design Week. “Being a design journalist, I have missed the context that a traditional trade fair or design week traditionally offer,” she says. “We have all tried to navigate in a more digital manner and it has been a great alternative during the pandemic. But something crucial has been missing; the sense of excitement surrounding a physical launch, the feeling of experiencing the product and its setting in real life and the dialogue and analysis between colleagues and industry that follows. This creates a framework for a product. Without this it’s just a digital image without context.”

Stockholm Furniture & Light Fair have cancelled its fair both in 2021 and 2022, and has spent much time analysing new needs and planning ahead. 
”Finding a more sustainable way to exhibit is key moving forward, just like investigating new ways to operate. I believe a fair need to offer more flexibility to the exhibitors who may only want to exhibit in a traditional manner every second year. It also needs to unite the industry”, says Nova Beatrice. 

The latter is crucial if we are to operate in a sustainable way, she believes. “If we want to find a more sustainable way for the industry to move forward, we need to collaborate and promote our values together. That’s how you create a long-lasting change. This is how we keep a united voice. It’s the only way forward.” 

In a similar fashion, the ceo of furniture company Blå Station, Johan Lindau, believes that furniture companies have to come together, and view it as an act of solidarity to attend fairs. ”To risk that fantastic platform and say 'we make a video instead’ is very sad,” he says. “When it comes to the furniture industry where things are tactile, people need to feel and squeeze. That is why trade fairs are so necessary in this industry, and will remain so. But the fairs will have to change. There are completely new opportunities for visitors and exhibitors, just look at Supersalone, an initiative born out of crisis, offering a complete new way of attending a fair.”

Now more than ever, there is a pent-up demand for people to get together. But fairs have to to it differently, says Marcus Fairs, founder and editor in chief of design magazine Dezeen. ”We have seen that brands managed without fairs, some brands say they had their most successful years, which we have to take with a with a pinch of salt. Fairs need to look at their business models, being creative to get brands to come and subsequently the audience,” he says.

As the world is opening up and restrictions are lifted, the big players on the international fair circuit are ready to open up their doors with new learnings and agendas. 
“This is a time of testing and risk-taking. It's about innovating to convince the buyers that sourcing cannot only be achieved while staying behind your screen,” says Caroline Biros, the marketing and communications director at Maison&Objet. 
Caroline Till, director and cofounder of futures research agency FranklinTill in London, agrees. 

“After two years with digital conferences, fairs have to play on physically bringing people together. The idea of networking for exhibitors and visitors is hyper important now,” she says. ”How do you market and communicate that? An opportunity in the immediate is to communicate yourself as an antidote to digital interaction. It is more important than ever to engage with your audience.”

According to Cristiano Pigazzini, cofounder of Note Design Studio in Stockholm, fairs need to be open to transformational change. 
“What has been working well in the past can’t possibly be good for the future. The pandemic will push fairs to a further phase of change,” he says.

”Finding a more sustainable way to exhibit is key moving forward."

- Hanna Nova Beatrice, Project Area manager

The hybrid fair
While brands have explored new ways of communicating outside the traditional fair calendar, not only visitors have changed their behaviours, but many furniture companies have examined their ways of working. Many brands have invested in new digital tools and explored ways to launch products through their digital channels. While the home interior market has flourished in many countries, and companies have reached all-time highs in sales during the pandemic, it’s not been as straight forward to launch new products without the platform of a fair.  A new breed of fairs and initiatives - like Dutch Design Week in 2020, VDF by Dezeen and Surface Tension World - has seized the opportunity to inspire visitors in new ways by combining the digital with the physical. 
"Whilst people weren’t always physically together, they were able to connect, interact and engage with one another – united by values of community, purpose and inspiration,” says Britt Berden, the art director of The Future Laboratory in London. According to her, a hybrid approach is the future of events, fairs and shows. ”The virtual spaces have provided new kind of opportunities and ways to engage and connect in collective ways we have not seen before.” The digital fair is where there is a massive opportunity to bolster access as well as amplify exclusivity and inclusion, Berden believes, whilst the physical event space is where resources can be shared as well as driving collaboration whilst reducing the environmental impact of shows.

Context and culture
Moving ahead, fairs need to take advantage of the fact that people are now itching to travel again for inspiration and reconnecting, according to Hanna Nova Beatrice, Project Area manager at Stockholm Furniture & Light Fair and Stockholm Design Week. “Being a design journalist, I have missed the context that a traditional trade fair or design week traditionally offer,” she says. “We have all tried to navigate in a more digital manner and it has been a great alternative during the pandemic. But something crucial has been missing; the sense of excitement surrounding a physical launch, the feeling of experiencing the product and its setting in real life and the dialogue and analysis between colleagues and industry that follows. This creates a framework for a product. Without this it’s just a digital image without context.”

Stockholm Furniture & Light Fair have cancelled its fair both in 2021 and 2022, and has spent much time analysing new needs and planning ahead. 
”Finding a more sustainable way to exhibit is key moving forward, just like investigating new ways to operate. I believe a fair need to offer more flexibility to the exhibitors who may only want to exhibit in a traditional manner every second year. It also needs to unite the industry”, says Nova Beatrice. 

The latter is crucial if we are to operate in a sustainable way, she believes. “If we want to find a more sustainable way for the industry to move forward, we need to collaborate and promote our values together. That’s how you create a long-lasting change. This is how we keep a united voice. It’s the only way forward.” 

In a similar fashion, the ceo of furniture company Blå Station, Johan Lindau, believes that furniture companies have to come together, and view it as an act of solidarity to attend fairs. ”To risk that fantastic platform and say 'we make a video instead’ is very sad,” he says. “When it comes to the furniture industry where things are tactile, people need to feel and squeeze. That is why trade fairs are so necessary in this industry, and will remain so. But the fairs will have to change. There are completely new opportunities for visitors and exhibitors, just look at Supersalone, an initiative born out of crisis, offering a complete new way of attending a fair.”

Now more than ever, there is a pent-up demand for people to get together. But fairs have to to it differently, says Marcus Fairs, founder and editor in chief of design magazine Dezeen. ”We have seen that brands managed without fairs, some brands say they had their most successful years, which we have to take with a with a pinch of salt. Fairs need to look at their business models, being creative to get brands to come and subsequently the audience,” he says.

As the world is opening up and restrictions are lifted, the big players on the international fair circuit are ready to open up their doors with new learnings and agendas. 
“This is a time of testing and risk-taking. It's about innovating to convince the buyers that sourcing cannot only be achieved while staying behind your screen,” says Caroline Biros, the marketing and communications director at Maison&Objet. 
Caroline Till, director and cofounder of futures research agency FranklinTill in London, agrees. 

“After two years with digital conferences, fairs have to play on physically bringing people together. The idea of networking for exhibitors and visitors is hyper important now,” she says. ”How do you market and communicate that? An opportunity in the immediate is to communicate yourself as an antidote to digital interaction. It is more important than ever to engage with your audience.”

According to Cristiano Pigazzini, cofounder of Note Design Studio in Stockholm, fairs need to be open to transformational change. 
“What has been working well in the past can’t possibly be good for the future. The pandemic will push fairs to a further phase of change,” he says.