Running events during a global health crisis due to a highly infectious virus is no easy feat.
Over the last five months, tech conferences, retail trade shows and fashion extravaganzas have either been canceled or morphed into virtual versions of themselves, begetting online alternatives that range from creative to downright awkward, with glitches and syncing issues aplenty.
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While the jury is still out on how well fashion events will adapt, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday that the shows will go on, at least in New York. Fashion week will take place on Sept. 13 to 17 as a mix of live and virtual events “in adherence with strict state public health guidance,” he said. That means no (or very few) spectators, and stringent capacity limits on indoor and outdoor events.
The fate of events for high-touch sectors like fashion and retail could shape how the industry does business for years to come — which is thorny, as there are no templates. Today, remote conferences can range from Zoom calls to professionally produced streaming sessions and even virtual reality sessions.
Wednesday marked another first, as the Faire Summer Market got under way. It’s the first online trade show by Faire, a wholesale platform connecting independent retailers to manufacturers, and it could show how an online version could work. And unlike other shows that have to scramble to translate themselves to digital — like fashion’s Magic to technology’s CES — Faire has been working toward its virtual event for four years.
In November, the vision crystallized with a $150 million series D, a mere few months before COVID-19 swept in. Now the company appears to be in a uniquely advantageous position.
“Nobody wants to benefit from a pandemic,” Max Rhodes, chief executive officer and cofounder of Faire, told WWD. “But, you know, I think it’s better than the alternative, I suppose.” He seemed careful not to look like a sore winner, balancing enthusiasm for his business in an environment where others are struggling with extreme challenges.
According to the ceo, the initial phase of the pandemic was hairy for Faire’s retailers, which are brick-and-mortar stores. The company shifted most of its resources into helping them, putting out a calculator to measure real-time impact and assisting with applications for the Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster Loans. Rhodes, who hails from the tech sector from places like Square, also gets the importance of online selling, so Faire raced to help retailers set up web sites. It even launched a marketplace to help them connect with consumers.
“Over the course of probably the last four months, it’s become clear that these independent retailers actually did pretty well, all things considered,” explained Rhodes. “Their sales are down maybe 5 to 10 percent year-over-year — which is bad, but is not nearly as bad as you might have expected it to be three months ago, when they were still locked down.”
They appear ready now for the summer market, which has attracted more than 100,000 attendees, roughly 9,000 global retailers and related promotions from nearly 5,000 brands.
The show offers interactive livestreams from 30 brands ranging from home goods to beauty, apparel and accessories. The lineup includes live demos, session speakers and a closing awards show, alongside virtual yoga classes and a retailer giveaway for a $1,000 shopping credit. Participants include Kitsch, Larissa Loden Jewelry, Just Black Denim and Sadie & Sage.
Anyone can attend online, but only registered Faire accounts can place orders. It’s one distinction between a business-to-business event and one aimed at consumers.
Another is how to “create those in-person interactions between brands and retailers, the relationships that get built there,” Rhodes said. “I don’t think online is ever going to do that as well. But I do think that, particularly in a pandemic, there are ways of recreating that.”
The livestreams are key, he said, and may even bring additional benefits. Instead of the one-to-one physical interactions, which can be exhausting, brands can create “many-to-one” interactions with a 15-minute livestream that can hit hundreds of retailers at once. Conversations happen via online chat, and the company is working on one-on-one appointment software for the future.
Virtual shows like the summer market bring some advantages. There are no travel expenses, and attendees can potentially reach more buyers. In a socially distant world, it’s also safer.
Yet according to live events research firm Explori, the absence of in-person events is hurting businesses. In its Global Recovery Insights study, two-thirds of exhibitor participants reported that live trade show cancellations have had a notable negative impact on their businesses, citing a reduced ability to build brand awareness and generate business. Meanwhile, as many as nine out of 10 attendee respondents believe that virtual events can’t meet their needs as well as live versions.
“Some commentators felt that a shift away from live to virtual events would be a long-term outcome of the pandemic,” said Sophie Holt, global strategy director at Explori. “However, these results suggest that whilst virtual events have an important role to play, especially in bringing events to new audiences, our customers are eager for the return of in-person events.”
That jibes with Rhodes’ outlook, especially as it relates to B2B events. However, his guess is that they will evolve into some sort hybrid online-offline affair.
“I do think there is a place for in-person events in the future for the wholesale industry,” he said. “I think there’s a world in which all the buying and selling, or the vast majority of it, happens online. And these [live] events really become more about entertainment, more about connection and more experiential.”
As for what comes next for Faire, the company plans to continue to develop its platform. It’s also looking to push further into areas like fashion.
Over the last three months, Faire has seen a 50 percent increase in demand for apparel on the platform. The company now serves more than 1,000 apparel brands, and there are more than 10,000 items in the women’s clothing category. A July update gave apparel brands some new tools, including personalized size charts, fabrication or care instructions and seasonality attribution.
Now more than a quarter of the summer market’s participating brands are in women’s apparel and accessories.
“We started in gift and home. We started expanding into food. And a big focus this year has been expanding into apparel,” Rhodes added. “We expanded to Canada, and we do have plans to go international — next year, most likely. It’s really about taking the market that’s working today, and expanding it into new categories, into new geographies.”
And, of course, maintaining its foothold online.