To understand Parihug’s product, you have to see it. In fact, you probably have to hug it.

So, for the last two years, Xyla Foxlin — the company’s founder and a Case Western Reserve University senior — traveled to Las Vegas to attend CES, what was formerly known as the Consumer Electronics Show and is now the world’s largest trade show. The benefits, of course, were obvious — face time with eventual mentors and investors. She even got tips on how to improve Parihug’s electronically connected stuffed animals that allow users to hug loved ones over long distances. Notably, to make a version of “Pari” small enough to pack in a suitcase for traveling parents.

Xyla Foxlin’s company Parihug was featured for the last two years at CES, the world’s largest trade show.

“For a young company and as a young founder, I don’t have a huge professional network to work with,” said Foxlin, whose business also has attended South by Southwest and other shows. “I didn’t spend 50 years in industry because I haven’t been alive 50 years. You need some way to level the playing field and explode your network really fast.”

Trade shows, of course, aren’t only for young entrepreneurs like Foxlin looking to make a splash. Corporate giants, too, have major displays at shows in their respective industries to maintain their visibility, meet prospective customers and keep tabs on what their competitors may be brewing.

But given the seemingly dying art of face-to-face sales as business becomes more reliant on digital communication and the increased scrutiny of traditional marketing methods, some are questioning whether the growing cost of attending trade shows — particularly to ones that don’t pack the glitz of CES — are relevant in a 21st century economy. That said, experts say that while it depends on the industry, trade shows aren’t quite dead.

However, there is a renewed pressure to prove one’s ROI — and doing so could take a little more work.

“I still think they’re relevant, but the purpose needs to be different,” said Mark Goren, CEO of Point to Point, a Beachwood-based business-to-business communications agency that works largely in the manufacturing space. “They used to be a place to gather a bunch of sales literature. Now, all the information you’d collect is generally available on the web. Trade shows now have a bigger concept of community and getting a bunch of people together with a shared interest, and with that comes an opportunity to provide higher levels of engagement.”

The industry as a whole

On a macro level, the trade show industry appears to be doing fairly well. According to data released in late August from the Dallas-based Center for Exhibition Research, the exhibition industry posted a “robust” year-over-year gain of 2.9%, compared to a 2.2% increase over the like period for real GDP. Moreover, all exhibition metrics in the second quarter — net square footage, exhibitors, attendees, revenues — posted year-over-year gains. Those gains were particularly encouraging following a slump late last year. It was the first time the exhibition industry outperformed the larger economy since the third quarter of 2016.

Rick Busby of The Rogers Co. — a Mentor-based company that specializes in trade show display design and rentals for clients such as Avery Dennison, Rubbermaid and Steris — agrees the exhibition industry is faring well, though it largely depends on the market.

The Rogers Co. helped Polychem of Mentor rethink how it could display its capabilities at trade shows.

For one, he’s seen increased activity in technology, medical and energy spaces, an observation that seems to mirror what the Center for Exhibition Research is reporting.

Busby said companies are looking at more cost-effective ways to tell their stories. For one, he said his clients are doing much more with graphics and technology rather than hauling a gigantic piece of equipment to display. Polychem Corp., a Mentor-based manufacturer of polyester and plastic strapping solutions, used to bring a large trailer to shows to demonstrate its wares. With Rogers Co.’s help, the company now boasts one made entirely of fabric.

“I always tell customers our job is to help them build brand equity,” said Busby, president at Rogers Co. “That’s why they’re going to a trade show. Years ago, shows were about writing orders. In today’s world, some of that happens — in some industries, more than others — but it’s really about relationship management and finding out customer needs.”

The best exhibitors are the ones creating different ways for their pitches to be heard — whether through personalized immersive education and some sort of interactive component, said Gary Schirmacher, the senior vice president of industry presence and strategic development for Twinsburg-based Experient, which works with 70 of the top 250 trade shows and is now part of the Maritz Global portfolio of companies. Technology, of course, has made that personalization much easier, as it allows exhibitors to know who exactly is attending the show and to set up meetings well in advance of stepping foot on the floor.

“Have you ever sat at your desk and had a webinar on for an hour? How much did you really watch and how exciting was it?” Schirmacher said. He added, “The best (exhibitors) are the ones who can create a sense of personalization when I come in. Hands-on experience — that’s the difference maker.”

Death of the tchotchke

The cost of setting up shop at a trade show isn’t cheap. Industry estimates peg it at upward of $150 per square foot. As for the attendees, employers still aren’t embracing business travel as they once were. So, on both sides, there’s more pressure to generate value. That’s why focusing on engagement, Goren adds, is so critical.

At the NAHB International Home Builders’ Show earlier this year in Orlando, Goren noticed attendees were glued to their phones rather than snagging the promotional items and branded totes. As such, he said, exhibitors should focus on crafting an interactive experience not unlike what Apple does with its stores and carefully scripted staff. Forget the branded tote bags, Goren said, because the idea is to make one’s booth a destination with comfortable seating, tailored talks and perhaps even a drink or two.

“Apple comprehends engagement really well,” Goren said. “An Apple retail experience is not because of the magic of Apple and its products — it’s the way they guide you into a purchase. Trade shows should do the exact same thing.”

Given the cost of exhibiting at a show, brands should carefully weigh a few factors. For one, they should visit one year as an attendee rather than an exhibitor, according to Lisa Zone, managing director at Cleveland-based communications firm Dix & Eaton. Questions to ask include whether it’s the type of show where business is being done and, of course, whether your brand’s absence might cause some prospective customers to scratch their heads. At the end of the day, though, it’s about creating value.

The biggest mistake exhibitors make, Zone said, is not doing enough preparation. That prep includes outreach to prospective clients and the media leading up to the show. And then, making sure booth workers undergo proper training.

“Everybody working the booth needs to be singing from same songbook and make sure the customers coming to the booth have a good experience,” she said. “When somebody comes home back to their office, they need to have something — some educational training or information that can help the company — to tell their boss rather than how they wined and dined and not a lot of business got done.”

For Daniel Weiss’ small software firm, Adatasol Custom Database Solutions in Beachwood, trade shows — especially niche ones — have been a “gigantic value” for his company’s growth. A few years ago, for instance, Weiss’ firm bought the rights to a piece of software that handles all aspects of tour management and booking. Being able to market it directly to the buyers of such services at the Student & Youth Travel Association conference in Albuquerque late last month was critical to executing Adatasol’s growth strategy.