Trade Shows, Conferences, Conventions: What’s the Difference?

trade shows, conferences, conventions... what's the difference?

Defining the Difference of Specific Industry Events

For those of us in the association industry, public outreach is crucial. In order to make an association successful and continually increase your membership, you need the public eye’s attention. Usually, we would do this at events specifically designed to bridge the gap between associations and potential new members. There are a few terms for events like these. Such as a trade event or show, an annual conference, or a convention. But do you know the difference between these terms? 

If I were to tell you that an international conference and a science fiction convention happening at the Las Vegas convention center were different, you’d think, “no brainer”. However, the differences are more subtle than that. So let’s talk about the differences between conferences vs. trade shows vs. conventions. 

What is a “Conference”?

In the most basic sense, a conference is a gathering of experts in a certain field of academia or industry. The purpose of this meeting can differ slightly, but the idea is for these experts to exchange information they’ve learned, and to come up with possible solutions for problems the industry or group might be facing. 

Typically a conference will have a keynote speaker that will address the group as a whole with a keynote speech. Usually, a keynote speaker will be some sort of celebrity or another person of note within the field or industry. This is done in an attempt to make the show attractive for potential attendees.

conference

What’s the Best Use for a Conference?

In order to discuss the best use of a conference, first, we have to acknowledge that there a couple of different kinds of conferences. 

  • Academic conferences are held by scientists or academics with the intent of sharing research or performing a workshop.
  • Business conferences are industry-specific events. Members of the industry will meet to discuss trends and patterns happening in relation to the industry. They might also discuss new ideas for innovation, invention, or opportunity.
  • Trade conferences are attended by businessmen and women as well as members of the public. The public is given the opportunity to make connections with businesses and network with vendors. 

What’s a Famous Conference that I’ve Heard of? 

The most famous conferences are probably held by the United Nations. They meet annually in September or at special request by the Security Council. The goal of the U.N. is to secure peace for the world, and this is always the topic of discussion in some form or another. 

Perhaps recently you’ve seen Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg speak at the U.N.’s climate change conference. The U.N. conference is always featured in the news, however, young Greta received a lot of press being a speaker at the young age of 15. 

How is it Different?

The biggest difference in conventions is that their intentions are to spread information more than for business networking. While the exchange of money is not forbidden by the nature of a conference, that is not usually the aim. Trade shows are meant for the dissemination of ideas in regards to business and industry, but conferences tend to focus more on humanitarian efforts and education. While the exchange of money is not expressly forbidden at a conference, it’s certainly not the focus. 

what is a trade show?

What is a “Trade Show”?

A trade show is a very particular kind of event. A trade show is an exhibition for companies or associations from a specific industry to show off new products and services they’re offering. These trade shows are not commonly open to the public. However, it is specifically for industry professionals looking for new products and services. Other attendees might include company representatives and members of the press. 

People usually find association trade shows by finding applicable groups in the Encyclopedia of Associations published by Gale Research. They may find the shows these groups attend in magazines, newsletters, or even posted at the public library (among other places as well). 

To find a trade show happening in your region, check with the local convention centers. Trade shows take a lot of planning and need to be booked months in advance. So, chances are, there’s already a trade show coming up in your area that you’d be interested in. 

trade shows vs conventions

Why Would I Attend a Trade Show?

The most basic reason you would want your association represented at a trade show is to influence other groups in the industry. According to a study published by the Center for Exhibit Industry Research (CEIR), “91% of attendees believe trade shows are the number one source of information to help them make purchasing decisions.”

That’s a huge number, especially considering that this is coming from the mind of the consumer. In other words, not what the association professionals think is happening. Trade shows can be an extremely invaluable source for getting information to the men and women your association wants as members. 

What’s a Big Trade Show that I’ve Heard of? 

If you’re at all familiar with trade shows, you’ve probably heard of the Consumer Electronics Show. They’ve boasted attendance numbers beaking 170,000. All of this is in a space of 2.47 million square feet of floor space. It’s a show aimed at showcasing all of the latest products and services in the IT and tech industries, and every year it gains more popularity.

How is it Different?

The name of the game for trade shows is creating awareness and increasing your business. Conferences and conventions can be more focused on the exchange of information. Trade shows, however, put the focus on making money. Where a convention is focused on the consumer experience, trade shows are all about the vendors. It’s a chance for your business or association to show potential investors, customers or members what you’re really made of. 

what is a conference vs a convention

What is a “Convention”?

Perhaps the definition for “convention”, in relation to any of these categories, is the most elusive. Merriam Webster defines a convention as “an assembly of persons for a common purpose”. It seems to me like it could refer to just about any gathering, though. More precisely, the purpose of this meeting is for the mutual discussion or enjoyment of a specific industry, profession, or fandom. 

What is a Convention For?

Conventions have appeal for both vendors and attendees, but the focus is squarely on the attendees. Conventions are meetings with the intent of consumers being able to interact with creators, attend panels, or participate in events. 

conventions usually have more of a celebratory feel to them

What’s a Big Convention that I’ve Heard of? 

The most common type of convention in the United States is a comic book convention. Famous Comic-Cons include the San Diego Comic-Con and the New York Comic-Con, and it’s quite likely you’ve heard about them.

How is it Different?

Conventions are different because their focus is on the consumer experience rather than the ability for an industry or association to sell something. Think of conventions like a music festival. The point of the music festival is for the attendees to have a good time listening to music they enjoy. The fact that musical artists, concert organizers, and food vendors are making money is just an added benefit. Simply put, conventions are an organized event for enthusiasts to gather together and share their enthusiasm. 

different meetings for different industries

Different Meetings for Different Industries

Now that we’ve taken some time to really dissect the differences, it probably seems pretty clear. Trade shows, conventions, and conferences are all pretty different beasts. Of course, they’re all a meeting of minds with the intent of sharing information and experience, but there are many more subtle differences between them. 

So now you know the difference. And hopefully, a better idea of which one pertains to you and your association. Be sure to look up an event happening near you and find out how one of these events can be beneficial for your association! And if you’re wondering what you need to know before attending your first trade show, see what we have to say!

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