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How I spent two days at a Trade Show during COVID-19

Well what a week! For those of you who are in the Events business, you are familiar with the feeling of both accomplishment and relief that comes at the end of an event. Yes, there are a million little things to do to wrap it up, but it’s okay to take a day or two and not think about it for the first time in weeks!

With events being cancelled since March the roller coaster of emotions that comes along with executing an event has been at a stand-still. But last week, we were back on that ride, highs and lows, only one chance to get it right, results pending on execution, and all hands on deck to make it happen. It was a two-day International Trade Show. What? A Trade Show with hundreds of people during a pandemic? How inappropriate! What was even more tasteless is that I attended the show in my slippers, no makeup, and hardly dressed for the business event that it was!

We are of course talking about a Virtual Trade Show. I’ve mentioned this in past blogs but now that we have gone through it, I can share the experience with better insight. When I realized our events would be cancelled indefinitely back in March, I knew our clients still needed to do business. Within days we had started research, brainstorming, interviewing service providers, and signed up for a Virtual Event Management course. It was definitely a ninety degree turn for my company, but it felt good. It felt like we were creating solutions while the world around us was hitting so many roadblocks. We started plans for our inaugural Virtual Trade Show event with clients and partners who shared our forward-thinking rational.

The cancelled events we had on the books were for activities we had planned for Atlantic Canadian companies to showcase products to International Buyers from all over the world. Export is so important to our economy and the overall success of many of our entrepreneurs in processing and manufacturing depends on being able to do business with importers. The cancellation of Trade Shows all over the world has thrown us a big challenge. Enter virtual trade shows.

I knew the concept could work, but it was a risk because you need the buy-in of the users to commit to maximizing the opportunities it presents. Is it a real-life show? Well, no it’s not, because it’s a virtual show. But let’s roll with the punches, turn lemons to lemonade, see the glass half-full, and make the best of the situation we are in. The concept we presented is about as close to a real show as possible without of course, being together in person. It’s interactive, includes conversations in real time with built-in translation, allows for video demonstrations, presentations, interfacing with other software, and unlimited branding and graphic design.

Our results were extremely positive. The surveys are still coming in, but in terms of a first kick at the can, we have been pleasantly surprised with the reactions. Not only did the platform and format work well for all involved but I personally think the results are much better than they would have been for small Atlantic Canada companies attending a large trade show in person. These expositions normally have thousands of companies showcasing products over two or three days. Buyers from large companies have an overwhelming task of deciding which products they will spend time on because it’s not possible to see them all. If we are lucky at our Canada booth, we will attract the attention of some qualified prospects. In the virtual event hosted last week we had 40 Atlantic Canada companies who were the center of everyone’s eye. Qualified and sought-after buyers from big companies from all over the world attended this show with no distractions from any other competitor. What an opportunity for our local companies!

The Buyers invited to the event were happy to attend. We need to remember that their job as a Buyer is to explore new opportunities and find new products. The cancellation of all trade shows in 2020 has affected their ability to transact with new suppliers. They were very pleased to accept our invitation to do business. This was helping them meet their own KPI’s. It was a win-win situation.

What I learned

I’ve been asked by many colleagues in the industry about the event experience, so here are my thoughts now that we have completed our first event:

· Do not underestimate the work. Although we had a software provider who provided support and we paid for additional help, we had to do the work. The support they provide is to show you how something is done, but the actual work rests with us. Putting this event together took more hours than I had originally planned for.

· If it’s a lot for you to learn, it’s even harder for your exhibitors. The companies who participate as exhibitors at the virtual trade show are asked to build their own virtual booth. For some small businesses who do not have a marketing department, this could be a bigger task that they are up for. There are so many questions coming in all day from exhibitors, we ended up doing a lot of our own work on the platform on the weekends while the phones and email were quiet.

· Encourage Exhibitors to work with a marketing firm. This is a chance for them to assess what they look like on screen. They may not have much invested in design so far and this is the opportunity for them to invest in their brand. When scrolling from booth to booth the companies who went that extra mile by working with a design team really stood out.

· Don’t try to activate all the bells and whistles. There are many options with this type of platform, but you don’t have to use them all. Make it work for you and only use the options that will help make your event better and provide a quality user experience. We deliberated on how to use gamification but felt it was not right for this particular event and I think it was the right decision. I do look forward to using it on our next one though.

· Work with a team. We had a large committee who worked with us in the planning strategy for this event, plus we had our own staff to execute the work. We had all hands on deck during the event and I was grateful. We were active monitoring chats, tracking attendance, checking in with exhibitors, welcoming guests, and troubleshooting. The first 90 minutes of the show was non-stop questions, clarifications, edits, and little fixes. But once we got going, we got our groove.

· Engage tech support. We had tech support online with us for the duration of the event. He was invaluable. He monitored the ‘technical help’ chat box and answered all the questions for anyone who had issues with navigation or screen resolution, etc. I highly suggest this so your staff can focus on other things. Our Tech was Gabriel and extremely helpful.

· Monitor chats. If you have open chats, assign someone to monitor them on a regular basis. We had a couple of people try to promote their services who were not exhibitors and we simply deleted their post. Easy peasy.

· Hire a project management firm. If you are a company or organization considering this type of event, don’t fool yourself in to thinking you can task your admin assistant with this job. It requires a team of people with both event and project management skills. We have a critical path with over 150 tasks to perform.

There are many different perspectives about how COVID-19 has impacted our world. There is no argument that is has brought about sadness, anxiety, and strain for many. But there is an argument to be made that new things have come from this situation, changing our lives, influencing what may have once been our firm resolve. Once upon a time this would not be a topic I would present myself to be any type of expert on. But here I am creating online experiences and learning about security, compliance, digital content, and software interfacing! We may have hit a pandemic roadblock, but nothing a little detour couldn’t fix!


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