Is It Time to Get Back to In-Person Trade Shows? Three Brands Weigh Their Options

In normal times, next week would be the first FFANY show of the year, when retailers and brands would converge on the Big Apple for fall product previews and strategy meetings, plus lots of dinners and drinks.

But this winter, brand reps and merchants are conducting their buying once again under a dark cloud of uncertainty, as new and more-dangerous strains of the COVID-19 virus threaten the health of the country, and the much-heralded vaccine rollouts have stalled in many states and cities.

All of that creates a difficult situation, where organizers and participants must balance the advantages of in-person gatherings with the physical and mental well-being of team members.

Many national shows have chosen a virtual route, including Micam Americas Digital, which kicked off last week and will run through March 16. It features footwear brands from across the men’s, women’s and kids’ market, including 21 Brazilian labels from the Abilcalçados footwear association.

Most of the smaller regional shows are continuing to favor in-person formats. The Dallas Market Center in Texas has been hosting events in its showrooms throughout the pandemic. Its latest shoe event — the Dallas Apparel & Accessories Market, which ran concurrent with the new WESA showcase for Western and English riding products — attracted 34% more retail buyers compared to last January, with at least 25% of buyers attending for the first time.

In the coming weeks, a number of other U.S. trade shows are slated to hold face-to-face events, including regional shows in Minnesota, Michigan and Illinois. Georgia will host both the Atlanta Apparel show and the Atlanta Shoe Market. And Informa Markets Fashion will organize a pop-up show in early February, in Orlando.

Meanwhile, upcoming virtual shows include Magic, Project, Coterie, Liberty Fairs and The Materials Show.

It is a complicated show schedule amid unprecedented circumstances.

And similarly, brand leaders and sales reps are equally challenged when it comes to determining the best way to conduct business and connect with retailers — while taking into account the unique needs of their businesses and teams.

Here, three companies share their philosophies for exhibiting this winter:

All-in for In-Person

As national sales manager for footwear at Lines of Denmark (which distributes Ilse Jacobsen, Bird of Flight, Rollie and other labels), Dan Butler is on the road this season, visiting many of the major regional events, including the Surf Show and Dallas earlier this month, and the upcoming Atlanta Shoe Market. “Because we carry so many different brands, we just can’t do them justice on a Zoom call or by going to someone’s store,” said Butler. “We need to be at shows to really showcase what we do.”

Butler also attended several in-person trade events in 2020 and said he feels confident about the safety protocols that have been put in place. “I’ve only heard of one outbreak at a show, and it was one person in a showroom. They just isolated the person and closed the showroom, so it didn’t spread to anyone else,” he said.

Ilse Jacobsen Rainboots
A lifestyle look from Ilse Jacobsen.
CREDIT: Courtesy of brand

However, he noted, not all members of his team are comfortable traveling. “Those that aren’t are figuring out a different way. We’re not pressuring them to do that until they feel comfortable doing it,” said Butler.

But the challenge of showing product virtually, he said, comes down to the touch and feel aspect of shoes. “So many retailers in our industry really take pride in their ability to pick what is going to be better for their customer. And it’s just harder to do if you can’t physically pick up the shoe,” said Butler.

Leave It Up to the Reps

For Leon Hill, director of sales for the Traq by Alegria line, his last in-person meetings with retailers was in early 2020, in the Pacific Northwest, where he attended a show in Portland and visited customers in Seattle. “It was a little bit scary, because [the COVID outbreak] kind of started in Seattle,” he recalled.

Once the country began to shut down and trade events were cancelled, the Alegria teams switched to remote operations, even setting up satellite showrooms in their homes. Hill said he’s installed racks in his office, and one of his Midwest reps does line showings from his basement. “Our Texas rep has a room that’s set up almost like you’re going to a show in the Embassy Suites,” he said.

Traq by Alegria
Traq by Alegria’s Qarma style.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Alegria

As for early 2021, the company plans to continue to focus on online, participating in virtual trade events and forgoing any large-scale shows. Alegria’s national sales manager B. Scott Cates said that decision has a lot to do with its core customer: nurses. “In honor of that consumer who buys the majority of our shoes, I think we owe it to her and to other medical professionals to do the right thing and heed the warnings,” he said.

However, Alegria is allowing its reps to decide whether to attend smaller regional shows, which are often held in showrooms or hotel rooms with more-controlled environments.

“We have an incredibly experienced sales staff,” said Cates. “We’ve given them the freedom where, if they choose to attend a regional show, that is their choice. We’re not going to tell them they can’t go; we also are not going to tell that they have to go. We’re going to let them be 100% responsible because we’re all professionals.”

He added that Alegria is reallocating some of the money it normally spends on trade shows to providing incentive pricing and terms — particularly to help independent retailers that have struggled amid the COVID restrictions.

See You on Zoom

Footwear brand Oofos has become a go-to brand in the growing recovery category, but brand execs say they’ll conduct business virtually this season. “Our No. 1 priority remains the health and safety of not only our internal team, but all our partners — vendor and retail,” said Darren Brown, head of marketing. “While we are excited for the return of in-person events, we recognize that it may still be a while before we are able to return to that environment.”

Oofos Sneaker
Oofos’ OOmg sneaker with stretch mesh upper.

Brown noted that the last in-person event Oofos attended was the Outdoor Retailer show in January 2020. Since then, the brand has relied on all sorts of methods to stay connected with retailers, including email, phone calls and video conferences. “We live in a highly technological time — and increasing by the day,” he said.

The executive noted there have been unexpected upsides to these online communications. “In many cases, it provided an opportunity for our field marketing team to directly engage with [our partners] in a consumer-facing, digital way — on the retailer’s channels — which hadn’t previously been explored,” said Brown.

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