It’s time to exchange screen time for more trade show face time

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My March 2020 calendar is marked with a simple “wfh”, serving as a reminder to “work from home”. The shift in workplaces was unusual enough that it deserved a formal reminder as we non-essential types grabbed our laptops and locked office doors against the early backdrop of Covid-19.

It wasn’t the first sign of changes to come. Exhibitors at one U.S. trade show filled booths with equipment, but then decided to keep personnel at home. Plans for a truck launch were postponed and then canceled. A live event hosted by Trucking HR Canada was cut short by several hours so industry HR managers could begin pandemic preparations.

How crazy everything seemed. I clearly remember thinking this might last several weeks. Maybe a month.

video call
(Illustration: istock)

We had seen viral outbreaks before, after all. The World Health Organization advised against non-essential travel to Toronto in April 2003, as cases of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) surged in healthcare settings. But the doors didn’t slam shut back then. As soon as July of that year, the city was able to respond with a massive open-air concert, a “SARStock”, headlined by the Rolling Stones. It was a celebration to show the world that life was back to normal, even though it was still life as usual for most of us.

But we now know everything was different when it came to Covid-19. The days working from home turned to weeks. The weeks to months. Trade shows and seminars – recurring staples of the trucking industry calendar – were rescheduled, postponed, and ultimately canceled.

Our editorial teams have hardly been shut-ins during the pandemic. The essential work of trucking continued, so we were still able to gather information in the field, visiting fleet yards, truck stops, and rallies alike. Event planners, meanwhile, shifted to virtual presentations, offering a desktop view of panel discussions that would traditionally require travel time.

Something is always missing from the virtual presentations, though. The scheduled sessions are only part of the trade show and conference experience. There is simply no substitute for the face-to-face networking that offers deeper insights into industry trends. The hallway introductions and casual side conversations plant the seeds for future ideas and business relationships. “Hey, have you guys met? He just mentioned something you guys might be interested in …” And something can only catch your eye in a trade show booth if you are, well, walking by a trade show booth.

Luckily, the doors to convention centers and exhibition halls are gradually reopening. Staff at Newcom Media, which publishes this website, have been abuzz with plans for the coming Truck World trade show April 21-23. And like thousands of others, our editorial teams joined the American Trucking Association’s Technology and Maintenance Council (TMC) meeting, the Green Truck Summit, and Work Truck Show earlier this month.

Gathering my name badge and lanyard before walking through the convention center in Indianapolis was somewhat of a surreal experience. I had wondered what it would feel like. Was it going to be any different than the events that were commonplace before March 2020, when we took such meetings for granted?

If anything, things seemed … normal. It was the closest thing to business as usual that we’ve seen for a while. The pandemic is not yet behind us, but the return of trade shows is a sign that there is a light ahead of us.

I doubt virtual meetings over FaceTime, Zoom, or Microsoft Teams will disappear altogether. And live events will come with health-related precautions for some time to come.

But I know I’m personally ready – more than ready – for the live events that return to the calendar. It’s time to exchange some more of our screen time for face time.

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John G. Smith is Newcom Media's vice-president - editorial, and the editorial director of its trucking publications -- including Today's Trucking,, and Transport Routier. The award-winning journalist has covered the trucking industry since 1995.

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