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Trade fairs as engagement platforms: the interplay between physical and virtual touch points

Maria Sarmento (Nova School of Business and Economics, Universidade Nova de Lisboa, Lisbon, Portugal and Open University Business School, Milton Keynes, UK)
Cláudia Simões (NIPE, School of Economics and Management, University of Minho, Braga, Portugal)

European Journal of Marketing

ISSN: 0309-0566

Article publication date: 20 February 2019

Issue publication date: 20 September 2019




The purpose of this paper is to provide insights into the association between physical and virtual trade fairs under the conceptual lens of engagement platforms. The authors build on the idea of business trade fairs (i.e. physical and/or virtual customer touch points) as learning and engagement platforms in service ecosystems.


The empirical study combines qualitative interviews (n = 16) with trade fair organizers, exhibitors and visitors and a survey (n = 263) comprising open-ended questions administrated to visitors of an international trade fair.


Findings highlighted the general role that trade fairs have in facilitating companies’ interactions with existing and potential customers. The trade fair develops in physical and virtual platforms, where companies advance business relationships and generate learning experiences and customer engagement. Participants look for solutions to problems and frequently innovation is a consequence of the engagement and learning processes. Yet, while the physical trade fair is instrumental for human personal interaction, namely, to establish informal networks of contacts and face-to-face interactions, virtual trade fairs are highlighted as a catalyst to foster interactivity and connectivity before and after the physical trade fair.

Research limitations/implications

The study endures limitations that may be addressed by future research. For example, studies in similar contexts and in other settings (e.g. different industries) are warranted.

Practical implications

The study offers wide-ranging implications for the principal agents from the trade fair industry: trade fair organizers, exhibitors and visitors.


This research constitutes a preliminary attempt to understand the association between physical and virtual trade fairs and contributes to the discourses on customer engagement and the underlying notion of service ecosystems in the trade fair environment. In particular, the study looks at the role and connections that each platform plays for organizers and participants providing important insights into improving physical and virtual trade fair participation strategies.



Maria Sarmento is grateful to Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia, Portugal (Ref. no SFRH/BPD/107886/2015), Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia (UID/ECO/00124/2013 and Social Sciences DataLab, Project 22209), POR Lisboa (LISBOA-01-0145-FEDER-007722 and Social Sciences DataLab, Project 22209) and POR Norte (Social Sciences DataLab, Project 22209). Cláudia Simões is grateful to COMPETE reference no POCI-01-0145-FEDER-006683, with the FCT/MEC’s (Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia, I.P.) financial support through national funding and ERDF through the Operational Programme on "Competitiveness and Internationalization” – COMPETE 2020 under the PT2020 Partnership Agreement.


Sarmento, M. and Simões, C. (2019), "Trade fairs as engagement platforms: the interplay between physical and virtual touch points", European Journal of Marketing, Vol. 53 No. 9, pp. 1782-1807.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2019, Emerald Publishing Limited

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