Are Trade Shows Headed the Way of the Big Mac?

In the 1990’s, one presidential candidate was infamously photographed eating at McDonalds on the campaign trail. Recently, his wife, now a democratic candidate, was seen eating a burrito at Chipotle while campaigning in Ohio. This quotidian moment may seem meaningless, but it reveals a big shift in American consumer mentalities and the fast food business ecosystem. These campaign photographs indicate that McDonald’s symbolized the all-American meal of the 90’s and Chipotle the quick, affordable meal of today.

The real proof is in the numbers. While McDonald’s stock has risen 41% over the last five years, Chipotle’s has risen a whopping 458% percent. Tellingly, McDonald’s once owned 90% of Chipotle in its early years but decided to sell off the small experimental burrito chain in order to focus on their main staples of burgers and fries. They sacrificed the new in order to protect the old, failing to synthesize the inherent value of both. Unfortunately for McDonalds, they would miss out in the 478% increase in stocks that was to come. Success lay in synthesizing two opposite business mentalities, not choosing one over the other.

Chipotle’s net worth—now over $13 billion—testifies the widespread popularity of their product. Stock values exhibit that people are choosing sustainably sourced, authentic, and, most importantly, customizable, burritos over prepackaged fast food meals scant in nutritious value.

A Chipotle meal allows costumers to build their own burrito, simultaneously catering to individual tastes and preferences while maintaining a formula that embraces the trends: fresh ingredients and transparent practices. The McDonalds meal is instead based on the BigMac: a single, easily mass-produced product that creates a depersonalized costumer experience. The emphasis is on quantity, not quality. Furthermore, a steady diet of McDonalds led to serious health issues for said 90’s presidential candidate, including quadruple bypass.

What is interesting, however, is how these seemingly opposed practices share the same underlying goal: providing an easily accessible and affordable meal to all Americans.

Could this be an apt metaphor for the changes affecting the trade show ecosystem? Like the McDonald’s stock, attendance is down and sponsors/participants feel disconnected and displeased with their results. And like McDonalds and Chipotle, everyone involved ultimately shares the same goal: making a return on their tradeshow investment. So, how can trade shows, the epitome of face-to-face marketing, resist becoming the Big Mac when consumers are demanding custom, organic burritos?

What if, instead of wholly letting go of the new model, as McDonalds did with Chipotle, we are to carefully synthesize the new with the old? Perhaps the way for trade shows to adapt to the future is to adopt this customizable, authentic, and sustainable product model into their existing business practices.

So the question is, what will trade shows for millennials look like? There are specific ways to find out. We hope that you will join us in a dynamic conversation by posting in our members only Linked In group. You can access this password by emailing us at In the mean time, please visit us at for more information and ideas about the new trade show.