What’s The Difference Between a Conference, Expo, Trade Show, and Summit?

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What’s The Difference Between a Conference, Expo, Trade Show, and Summit?

Throughout each year you will receive numerous invites to conferences, expos, summits, trade shows, and a slew of other professional events meant to help you connect and share your product or services with others. However, there is only so much time in a day and resources are limited, especially when travel is required to reach some of these events. How do you decide which of the 285,000 events to attend? Or, as an event maker, how do you decide which one to organize? What is the difference between planning and attending a conference versus an expo? Is a summit different from a symposium? This article will break down the differences between conferences, expos, trade shows, and summits and help you decide which events you should attend and which ones you should organize.


Definition:  According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a conference is “a formal meeting in which many people gather in order to talk about ideas or problems related to a particular topic, usually for several days.” To break that down, let’s look into the specifics of a conference:

  1. Conferences are formal. This means that conferences have a professional feel to them, from dress and attire, to content and speakers. When you attend a conference, make sure you are dressed appropriately and are in the mindset to learn and develop your professional skills.
  2. Conferences discuss ideas or problems related to a topic. Although there may be a networking session after the conference, conferences are not the place to talk about you and your business. Instead, conferences focus on a larger issue that faces an entire industry or profession. For example, in the event planning industry, a topic for a conference may be “Increasing Participation at Events” or “Attracting New Audiences to Annual Events.” The topics at conferences resonate with the everybody in the industry, as it addresses and underlying problem that needs to be overcome.
  3. Conferences have speakers, not always discussions. Be prepared to take notes on your laptop, tablet, phone, or if you’re still in practice, pen and paper. Throughout the conference you will hear from keynote speakers, guest speakers, and other industry leaders. Conferences provide an opportunity to learn from thought leaders of your trade, but aren’t always a good place for conversation. While many conferences provide breakout sessions, they usually focus on having the attendees learn from speakers or through activities. With conferences, take good notes and share what you learned with your colleagues upon your return.

Why attend: At conferences, you will hear from leaders in your field who have navigated many of the same challenges you do in your daily job. They have successfully overcome some of the obstacles you face and share how they did it. Conferences spark new insights into lingering questions and renew excitement about the work you do. Often, they help you solve problems that you couldn’t figure out on your own, and you can network with other like-minded individuals. Make sure to use this helpful checklist below by Salesforce Pardot to effectively plan ahead for your next conference.

Why organize: If you have an underlying problem that exists in your field, a conference is a practical way to get like-minded professionals together to help solve the issue. Smart minds in your industry can get together, meet with you, and network with each other to learn and grow. Your reputation as a thought-leader will grow, and you will have a greater influence in your industry. While many conferences last multiple days, it is not a requirement. If you only have enough content for one day, or a couple hours, a conference can still be very beneficial to attendees. Make sure you can line up quality speakers, a meal or snack, and a productive activity to make your conference more effective.

Conference Checklist


Definition: An exposition, often called an expo, is a global event that aims at educating the public, sharing innovation, promoting progress, and fostering cooperation.

  1. Expos are a great way to meet people. Network with business-owners and decision makers. 
  2. Attend topical seminars or roundtables to learn how you can become better in your field.
  3. Expos combine the professional development of a conference with the social aspect of a convention.

Why attend? Attending an expo is a great way to network and learn more about topics you’re interested in.

Why organize? An expo is a large-scale trade show often conducted on an international level. Think of an expo as a hybrid of a trade show and conference that is mainly focused on exhibitors. Expos are often sprinkled with a few sessions or seminars put on by the show organizer that pertain to the topic of the expo. They’re a great way to get a lot of attention on your event since they are so huge and typically have many attendees.

Trade Show:

Definition: Wikipedia defines a trade show as “an exhibition organized so that companies in a specific industry can showcase and demonstrate their latest products and services, study activities of rivals, and examine recent market trends and opportunities.” Taking a closer look at this definition, we can take away that:

  1. Trade shows are for showcasing and demonstrating. When you are at a trade show, you will be surrounded by people selling their goods and services. Trade shows benefit buyers and sellers equally as it is a place to demonstrate how your product or service can benefit potential buyers, and potential buyers can see what products or services they want to purchase. Most of the buyers are from corporations or distribution companies buying on behalf of their company. At trade shows, you won’t find as many individual shoppers.
  2. You can see what your competition is working on. Trade shows showcase the newest and best products and services from each company as they hope to get an edge in the market. Because they are showing the newest and best products, it means that you can see how your product compares. You can get an up close and personal look at each product, ask questions, and have rare face time with competitors to find out all you want to know about their products. This is a rare opportunity to speak directly to the makers of the product. Take the opportunity to see what they are doing that you aren’t and see if you want to incorporate that into your own product or service.
  3. Examine recent market trends and opportunities. Trade shows bring together many people in the same industry selling products that cater to many of the needs of individuals. However, as you are studying the different products and services that are offered, you may see gaps in the market that can be filled by you or your organization. You can see the current trends and make steps to be ahead of the curve, but also make sure you don’t fall behind.

Why Attend: If you have a product or a service that you are trying to sell, you need to attend trade shows to not only get more eyes on your product, but the right eyes. Trade shows are usually quite large and each registrant pays to display their product from a booth. You can take your product and inform curious buyers why they need or want your product. You also want to attend if you are a buyer for a corporation. You will want to make sure to attend all of the relevant trade shows that could improve your company. Trade shows usually garner attention whether that means national, local, or industry media, so there is always a chance your product or service gets featured in an article.

Why organize: Putting together a trade show isn’t something you think of on a whim, but you will have practical reasons for putting one together. Maybe there are no similar trade shows that already exist within your industry in your area, yet there are many qualified people who would be willing to attend and exhibit. Putting together a trade show can also define you as a thought leader in your industry. It isn’t easy working out all of the details of a trade show, but if you execute it correctly, you can make connections and network with hundreds or even thousands of people in your industry. These stats below by Infinity Exhibits will give you an idea of who you can expect to attend your trade show.

Tradeshow Statistics


Definition: The formal definition of summit is a meeting of heads of state or government, usually with considerable media exposure, tight security, and a prearranged agenda. We’ll break it down and translate it into how a summit works in the business world.

  1. A meeting of heads of companies or top executives. A summit is different from a conference and a convention in that it is an exclusive event reserved for top level executives. Summits are usually reserved for top executives, or people of influence within an organization or an industry. It is a setting where big business occurs, deals are made, and debate happens.
  2. Prearranged agenda. Before attending a summit, participants will know what is being discussed and will come prepared with information they can use in discussion. Summits can last up to a couple days and topics vary, but they are all important issues. Often, keynote speakers at the summit will be given by attendees, as they are often people of influence within their sphere.
  3. Hear information there first. The definition of a summit is the topmost level attainable, so high caliber officials are often attending. As top executives meet together, new industry information is often shared here first.

Why attend? If you are invited to attend a summit, it is because your opinion is valued and your position is respected. You will be able to meet and network with other influential leaders in the industry. While you are there, you will have influence in the debate, will hear information there first, and will grow your business.

Why organize? Organizing a summit clearly sets you apart as an industry leader. People will know your name and realize your influence in the industry by the people who attend. Summits gives you an opportunity to start the discussion of important topics that need debating. Summits are formal and very productive

Author Profile

Colin Matthes
Colin is a Creative Director at SpinGo. He is a Pay-per-click and Search Engine Marketing expert who is committed to placing ads in front of the right people, at the right place, at the right time. He is Skilled in segmentation, audience creation, and campaign optimization.


2 Responses

  1. Hi there! This is my 1st comment here so I just wanted to give a quick shout out and tell you I genuinely enjoy reading your posts. Can you suggest any other blogs/websites/forums that go over the same topics? Thank you so much!

    • Jonquille Anderson says:

      Thanks Garfield! Eventindustrynews.com has similar content, I would also check out eventmanagerblog.com as well.

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