Nearly a year ago the $100 billion convention industry ground to a halt. The crippling effect was almost immediate. Strict stay-at-home orders forced employers to abandon any networking events. Showcase opportunities for speakers and sponsors vanished. Conference venues sat empty, and thousands of event staffers lost their jobs.
The pandemic basically killed the business model for large, in-person events. But the need for professional development, product launches, and networking never disappeared.
This week, we’re talking with three convention industry insiders – a conference director, a sponsor, and a keynote speaker – to get their takes on how conferences and trade shows have changed, and how everyone can make the most of these new networking opportunities.
Cherlene Willis is Managing Director of the HR Division at Opal Group. Cherlene is responsible for developing agendas and recruiting industry experts to share best practices and real-world challenges at Opal’s premier conferences catered to high-level executives and decision-makers throughout various industries.
Bianca Lager is a business strategist and career growth expert specializing in early to mid-sized startups and established small businesses. Bianca is a Madecraft author and LinkedIn Instructor. She is also the president of Social Intelligence, a Consumer Reporting Agency, focused on online risk for human resources.
Jodee Bock is the founder of Bock’s Office Transformational Consulting and has more than 20 years of experience in the areas of corporate communication, media relations, executive coaching, and training and development. She holds multiple certifications in life and career coaching. Jodee is a highly sought-after keynote speaker, workshop facilitator, and business consultant.
Willis: As a conference director for Opal Group, before the pandemic hit, we produced live 3-day in-person face-to-face events. We held our events at nice hotels all around the United States, in all sorts of different regions. When the pandemic hit, we quickly had to pause everything we were doing. We had to inform all our clients their shows had to be shut down and that it wasn’t safe to hold these events anymore.
So, we immediately looked into how we could transform our live 3-day events into an engaging virtual experience. But we needed to get some answers from our audience to help us along the way. We had to ask ourselves, and them, what is our audience going to like? What are our sponsors going to like? What will still allow networking to happen and get people to meet and connect and learn through leadership and information as it pertains to their industry and specialties?
Lager: Over the last year, trade shows have been 100% virtual for Social Intelligence. We typically participate as sponsors in 3-4 shows a year. Over the past year, we have experimented with participating as sponsors with virtual booths at 3 and I can’t say the experience has been great on that end. Most of the shows were producing virtual shows for the first time so the traffic flow wasn’t great, nor the structure of how people found your booth or the engagement. We are scaling back our participating levels as sponsors but still active on some level.
Bock: 2020 was starting off as my best year ever. I had in my plan to be a keynote or breakout speaker for 10 national/international events, and by February I already had two under my belt. And then we know what happened.
I was stopped for about a month as I pivoted and decided what to do. Obviously, many other events I had planned to attend as a participant or a presenter stopped nearly overnight. But I had the great fortune to speak at two virtual events in May where, in one case, my presentation was pre-recorded and, in the other, we were hybrid: the presenters were on a stage in the same venue while the event itself was virtual.
For 2021 I have only a couple of in-person gigs booked as of March, but my virtual business is picking up. It’s been a fascinating ride.
Willis: We looked at virtual reality platforms, telecommunications services, and video conferencing. We needed to know how we could pull together content and make it available to our audience quickly. Some people, not us, used Zoom. But we found out that many of them started experiencing issues with that provider. We went with a software provider and partnered directly with them to build an online platform that had everything we knew we need to hold a successful conference, from an organizing point of view, but also for our sponsors, speakers, and attendees. We made sure to create a single sign-on where people could register, log in, and go to a website with a virtual exhibit hall, sessions tabs for keynotes and breakout sessions, and a lounge where you could click on it and talk to people and direct message them.
When we rolled this out, we had people who were totally on board immediately. We had sponsors who totally supported this, as well as audience members and speakers. But we also had instances where some people weren’t used to it. As conference organizers, we just always need to remember the human connection factor and we need to always figure out how to provide a human connection – even virtually – in a meaningful way for vendors, sponsors, speakers, or an attendee.
Lager: In my LinkedIn Learning course on How to Rock a Conference, I go over some virtual trade shows tips I’ll share here:
First things first: minimize your distractions. That goes for attendees, speakers, sponsors, or anyone participating. In the same way that you would go to an in-person conference, block out your calendar. When you’re attending a virtual conference from home alone, it’s really easy to multitask and get distracted. Don’t be a passive viewer. Attend the conference and commit to really being there.
When attending a session, focus on engagement at a high-performing level. Your goal here should be to extract more meaning from the session than you would even at an in-person event. Engage in the opportunity as deeply as you can to get as much value as possible. One of the great mechanisms at a virtual conference is the ability to rewind and/or rewatch content. Rewatching content gives you the ability to gain deeper meaning.
Another cool and totally unique thing about virtual conferences is that you can talk to other attendees during presentations! It’s super rude to do that at live events, but when you’re watching a session online, usually there’s a chat room that’s active and you can ask other people if they’re having the same insights as you are.
Bock: Right at the beginning of what was looking to be a pandemic in the world, I knew it was important to get more online presence. I was fortunate to have been booked at three events where the organizers were quick to pivot online. Having that experience (and the videos and photos to prove it) helped a bit to get that type of exposure. But the absolute best thing I did was hire a marketing coach who helped me get much clearer on my messaging and start something completely new. I am still stepping into all the aspects of that new brand, but it started with a new podcast called Circle Up & Get REAL which has launched a private Facebook page and my first completely virtual online course called Get REAL Intensive.
I am working with my marketing coach now to launch a new offering for leaders who are looking to connect with like-minded and like-hearted others to raise the vibration of their workplaces and build engaged and connected cultures where employees and associates are changing the world for the better.
Very generally, I’ve shifted from larger keynote and public presentations to smaller, more intimate, and deeper conversations and facilitations. While I enjoy the energy from the large events, it’s been very rewarding to experience the more obvious transformations of the smaller groups and individual coaching clients with whom I’ve connected this past year.
Willis: We want to start rolling back into hybrid events as soon as we safely can do so. The pandemic has changed the perception that you have to go to an event to experience it. Some people are starting to enjoy the virtual experience. There is a percentage of people with cabin fever, certainly, and a percentage of people who like the convenience factor of a virtual event.
As a conference director, I see tremendous benefits to organizing a hybrid event. For employees who don’t want to travel, or can’t for any number of reasons, they can still access part of the event. And for those who really value that live experience, we need to be able to honor that, too. Each division at Opal is working on a solution that’s best for their sponsors and attendees. It’s not one-size-fits-all.
Lager: Likely a way to optimize hybrid shows is to have some representatives attend the show in person and reserve some representatives for the online presence. Dividing and conquering is a major advantage – it can save costs while spreading your influence and awareness even further.
Bock: In my experience, there have been some hybrid events that have been very successful and others that haven’t, depending upon the desired outcome of the event. It is imperative that, if organizers have a clear desired outcome in mind, they get with professionals who can help with the technicalities and planning of these events. There are some organizations that have stepped into their greatness and honed their expertise, and those are the organizations with which to partner for the conferences. We humans will be craving connection, and those organizations that are poised to pivot when we can get back in person will be busy this year, especially if they’ve figured out the virtual technicalities. Organizational dynamics have been tested this year, but those that can flex have thrived and will continue to thrive into this next year and beyond.
Our conversation with our experts continues in Part Two.
EBI is committed to helping the convention industry continue to climb back and host successful events. Our end-to-end solution, EBI Workplace Health & Safety, is a secure U.S. cloud-based, customizable platform providing modular options to help organizations protect their people and their livelihoods. It’s the ideal scalable solution for trade shows who want to safely and steadily return to in-person events.
Our team is standing by to walk you through a demo of how EBI Workplace Health & Safety can help all of us work confidently and safely.
Writer. Digital marketer. Storyteller. An award-winning writer and editor, Tricia O'Connor is the Marketing Content Manager at EBI. Tricia worked as a broadcast and print journalist for nearly two decades writing and producing programming for high-profile networks like ESPN Radio, History Channel, and Hallmark Channel, as well as contributing editorial work to publications nationwide. Tricia joined the EBI marketing team in 2019 and is responsible for content strategy, development, and engagement. Tricia earned a master's degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and is a proud undergraduate alumna of Wheaton College in Massachusetts.