The 2018 trade show circuit has all but come to a close. Gone are the Shoptalks, IRCEs, eTail Wests, Shop.orgs, and so many other acronyms. The industry saw high-highs (Shoptalk) and low-lows (NRF), with much in between. It is only fitting that we start to plan ahead because quite soon, NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay will ring in the New Year again at the Big Show in January with his penchant for unbridled optimism.
So, before NRF kicks off, I have one major issue to get off my chest: There is still more to be done in terms of advancing the cause of women in tech and women in leadership throughout retail. I wrote early last year of my experience walking the trade show floor at NRF with my business partner, who is a woman. I would often get handed a business card while she was handed a flyer to an after-party. It was a disheartening gender-bias display set amidst a sales floor that looked like a holdover from a Brooks Brothers convention, circa 1990.
Going forward the industry needs to do better, and it can. Here’s how:
My 2019 Wish List
1. Take a Page from the Innovation Labs and Create a Prime Real Estate Section Highlighting Women
It is well-documented how women are underrepresented in leadership roles within retail despite women making up the largest proportion of our industry’s actual consumer base. It makes no sense, and it is time we get more active together to do something about it.
In our travels this year, my partner and I saw a move in the right direction — steps like emphasizing successful women as keynote speakers, education tracks devoted to women-led businesses, and efforts like the Girls’ Lounges featured at many shows.
The opportunity now is for trade show to magnify them all by melding them with something else great that they already do well — Innovation Labs. Innovation Labs are typically the most trafficked areas of a trade show floor. Entrepreneurs within the labs have told me numerous times that there is a marked difference in the engagement they see from people about their companies when they show inside of an Innovation Lab as opposed to setting up shop outside of one, where instead they get lost amidst the overwhelming vagaries of the chaotic trade show floor.
Trade shows could create the same Lab model to highlight women in leadership and women in tech among all the great companies in attendance. This Women’s Lab could be positioned right in the center of the trade show floor. The section could be cordoned off designed to inspire success like an Innovation Lab, featuring either companies founded by women or companies in which women occupy key leadership roles.
The mash-up would welcome everyone at the show to see all the great work being done and all the businesses being led by women in the industry. This “shop-in-shop” section would be set apart from all other activities, just like shows do with their Innovation Labs.
Lots of creative and inspiring names could be given to the Lab. But the name isn’t as important as the idea — the concept of an open showcase to help level the playing field for our women entrepreneurs in tech and our women leaders overall, whether founders or not, to get the visibility that they deserve. Regardless of what it is called, every corporate exec, VC, member of the press, etc. would, without a doubt, notice the section and do a full once-and-around the entire area while in attendance.
I can hear the conversation now, “Did you check out the new section of the show featuring women in retail?” No one worth his or her salt would dare answer that question in the negative.
2. Dedicate Exclusive Press-Only Time to Women Entrepreneurs
As a member of the media, it is nearly impossible to make your way around an entire trade show floor. Media members have the same problems retailers and brands do – you just can’t be everywhere, all the time, which is why the Innovation Labs are so popular. They give people an exciting place to go and to see everything new all in one place.
Instead of forcing the media to rummage through the floor and find women-led companies on their own, imagine holding a press conference and allotting dedicated time to media with female-owned companies so the media could interview and learn more about all their great innovations. Similar to the existing Innovation Labs, media would have prime access to these female leaders. The origin stories would be fascinating, the tech would likely be compelling (because who knows women shoppers better than women) and the marketing would help the best and the brightest stand out against a floor chock-full of size 40-regular pinstripes.
3. Include More Women in the Overall Programming
Women should be spotlighted within the shows’ programming. Keynotes, podcasts, panels, workshops, etc. – whatever vehicles are at a show’s disposal should be used to highlight the activities of women and their companies. And BTW, every presentation should also be live-streamed through the entire trade show floor at key intersections, with a subtitle scroll of the conversation and with details informing watchers where to go to learn more.
4. Ban Booth Babes
I don’t think I have to say much more here. Booth babes need to go the way of the dodo. Sex may sell but you shouldn’t need sex to sell your personalization engine. Not only should the practice of booth babes be outright banned by show organizers, but show-goers, if they see the practice, should also take to social media and post photos of the offending brands. That will end the practice real quick.
The Stark Reality
Regardless of whether you agree with my sentiments or not, they come from the heart. No BS. I have trouble understanding how our industry could not be in a better place if it demanded action on any of the above ideas. But, sadly, not all will see it that way.
I may even catch hell, but that is okay. Because it is about changing the conversation — not who is right or who is wrong. And that conversation is now in the hands of the trade shows themselves to step up and lead going forward. Some no doubt already have plans like these in place, while others will say, “Nice article. We would love to set up time to hear more about your thoughts,” tweet niceties, and then never follow up. But the industry, i.e. the show goers, know what is what, and over time they will gravitate to the shows that lead and leave behind the shows that follow. It is this important difference that has made Shoptalk, Shoptalk versus NRF, NRF over the past few years.
How will this gender parity issue play out? Will it serve as another point of important differentiation for the true leaders in the trade show industry over time? Only time will tell. I optimistically hope so. The power of improving gender-parity practices could change the culture, not just for women, but for everyone.