The Great Expo
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A Tradeshow for the Ages

By Bob McGlincy

The first modern tradeshow, which took place at Crystal Palace in London’s Hyde Park, opened to a sold-out crowd of 25,000 people on May 1, 1851. Twenty-three weeks later, through word of mouth, single-day attendance reached 109,915 and total attendance for the show exceeded six million paid visitors. To put that number into perspective, it is double that of a typical year at McCormick Place, and just shy of all tradeshow visitors in all venues in Las Vegas for an entire year, pre pandemic (6.04 million attendees in five and a half months in London in 1851 versus 6.6 million in Vegas in a full 12 months in 2019).

Appropriately named The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, the show celebrated the industrial revolution and was one of only a few shows in the 19th century to turn a profit. (In terms of today’s dollars, the profit topped $20,000,000!)

On visiting the show, the editor of The New York Tribune, Horace Greeley, said, “I was there for five days, and still did not see it all.”

A number of factors made the show unique.

  • It was specifically designed to showcase technology as the key to a better future.
  • It was the first international show and brought together people and businesses from 44 countries.
  • The exhibit floor space was four times larger than any existing hall at the time.
  • There were more than 14,000 exhibitors (more than 2.5 times the previous record).
  • Crystal Palace was the largest building in the world at the time and the first iron and glass convention center; it covered 19 acres and enclosed 33 million cubic feet.
  • There were more than 100,000 exhibits on display.
  • It was the first to charge admission, the first to solicit sponsorships, and the first to make a profit.
  • It laid the foundation and unfurled a blue print for tradeshow success for the future.

After 1851, it made political and economic sense for other cities and countries to follow London’s lead. If a city could attract a million, or ten million visitors (or more), then it had millions of opportunities to sell ideas and promote products–in other words, millions of opportunities to make money. After The Great Exhibition, tradeshows and expositions began to appear and multiply.

Tradeshows have proven to be a dynamic economic engine. Prior to the COVID pandemic, the tradeshow industry globally supported 26 million jobs and contributed $1.5 trillion to the GDP. Truly impressive numbers! And this was all a direct result of the first modern tradeshow. 

The Great Exhibition was a seminal event of the Victorian era and a defining moment in tradeshow history. It was the first, the most profitable and it foreshadowed things to come. But was it the most important tradeshow of all time? I would say, no. The most important show is the next one. The one promoting the next new idea. The one encouraging the next chance meeting or conversation on the show floor. The one displaying the next new product. And the one closing the next sale.

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