Roundtable Part Two: How to Make the Most of 2021 Conferences and Trade Shows

Roundtable Part Two: How to Make the Most of 2021 Conferences and Trade Shows

By Tricia O'Connor

The $100 billion convention industry is getting back to business.

New research conducted from February 18 – March 2 finds 81% of meeting planners will hold their next in-person event sometime this year. Nearly 60% percent of that business will happen in the second half of 2021.

That is positive news considering the pandemic ground the entire industry to a halt, taking a lot of jobs with it. Industry insiders quickly pivoted toward digital shows with varying results. We discussed this shift in Part One of our roundtable series where we sat down 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.

In Part Two, our experts turn toward the future and tell us how they think meetings and events will need to evolve to future-proof against new crises.

Our panel of experts:

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.

EBI: Do you hope in-person trade shows and conferences pick up steam again in 2021 and beyond? Why or why not?

Willis: There is a hope with vaccine distribution and lowering positivity numbers and travel restrictions not being as tough as they used to be, that we’d be able to go hybrid for Q3 and Q4. But at this point, everything is still week to week, and we continue to poll our audience and our sponsors.

We have a percentage of our audience who raised their hands months ago and said as soon as you do a live component I will go back because I really value that live experience.

But one thing we do know for sure is the pace of virtual events doesn’t suit everyone. People expect things to be quick and fast and they want to one-click everything. It’s not like being on-site at a live event, where you have staff members who can point you to everything you need. That’s basically your one-click person, right?

Lager: I do hope in-person tradeshows pick up steam in 2021 when it is safe to do so. Getting together face to face with people you may never see otherwise really helps deepen your connection. Plus, they can be a lot of fun!

Bock: I do hope in-person trade shows and conferences pick up steam again because I’m an energetic extrovert: I gain energy from being in-person with others. I’ve had the opportunity to facilitate a few events in 2020 with clients who went where the states were more open, and we were careful with social distancing and following the guidelines. But I’m ready to get back in person!

EBI: How important will it be for in-person conferences and trade shows to incorporate some element of health and safety into its run?

Willis: I think, without a doubt, we’ll take all health and safety precautions very seriously and make hand washing and sanitizing stations available throughout spaces and encourage masks and contact tracing so we know where people are coming and going and who they’ve been in contact with.

From now on, we will need someone on-site to serve as a Chief Safety Officer. We’ll need that person to make sure surfaces are being cleaned in a timely manner and that if we notice people are not obeying social distancing, those people will need to be rearranged.

All the while, we need to be making sure we still allow networking for vendors to build relationships and showcase their products. You have to re-think what does that exhibit hall look like and break everything down and build it back up with safety 100% in mind. While still achieving the ultimate goal of connecting people together.

Lager: In 2021 and perhaps beyond, it’s vital for in-person conferences and trade shows to incorporate some element of health and safety. We’ve learned so much from the pandemic and the clear obvious area of focus here is large group gatherings. For the most part, we’re starting to see that when appropriate safety measures are applied like social distancing, mask wearing, cleaning, and hand washing then the opportunity to join a gathering may be reasonable. Not everyone will want to attend even if those measures are in place, but some will, thus likely the increase in hybrid events we will see over the next year.

Bock: This is such an interesting question because it’s difficult to step into it without it becoming political. In my experience speaking at an in-person event this past June, the organizers shifted locations to find a state where in-person events were possible and held the event with very few adjustments. When you consider the foundation of some of these organizations and the core values upon which they were built, if those core values support freedom of opportunity and choice, they may not have much adjusting to do. If, on the other hand, they have a different set of core values, there may be other safety precautions in place as we’ve seen demonstrated at national events. I really can’t speak for others – I think the safety and protection and trust attendees or sponsors or speakers feel will be a very personal decision. Since I’ve been doing in-person, hybrid, and online events all throughout 2020, I have experienced the care and safety with distancing and masking that has allowed me to remain healthy, and to also deliver my message.

EBI: What role do you think technology will play in bringing back live events safely?

Willis: We traditionally start planning our events 6 – 12 months in advance. So, any decisions about our safety protocols and purchasing technology and equipment would be in that 6 – 12 month range. But we are considering things like contactless temperature screening with a mask reading feature, hand washing and sanitizing stations, redesigning layouts that provide for physical distancing but still fit a crowd, changing seating and traffic flows.

From a digital component, I absolutely think tracing devices may have some added benefits that aren’t typically front of mind, like being able to help with flow and coordination. Having the ability to scan items and download content, as opposed to walking away with a pamphlet, will also help refocus on the human connection of these events.

We certainly want to see how the industry performs as a whole when the time comes that someone, whether it’s us or a competitor, is able to safely host a live event. We’ll see that as a step in the right direction for our whole industry. If one of us wins, the whole industry wins. We just want to prove if people build it, people will come.

Lager: I think one of the things that gets talked about less often is how great data is from virtual conferences. From an organizer standpoint, virtual conferences are a data goldmine. You’re delivered a wealth of behavioral data that can inform what topics are most popular, where to double down in the future, and what really resonates with and engages attendees.

But virtual conferences are big adjustments and create challenges for folks that are new to the game. Overall, I’m optimistic and encouraged to see more creative solutions emerge, providing businesses and speakers even more opportunities for exposure and at the end of the day, an opportunity to step outside the day-to-day grind and discover new tools and perspectives.

Bock: I am the head scorekeeper for the North Dakota State University basketball teams, and in order to get back in person we all had thermal scans and also a questionnaire to fill out before each game. It seemed a small price to pay to ensure confidence in the health of the staff and players.

I have spoken at several semi-virtual events during this past year, and I’ve been so impressed with the level of safety the organizers of those events have had in place, including my own mother’s funeral in February.

My mom spent this entire last year in a nursing home where we were in various stages of ability to visit. In about the past two months or so they acquired a new scanning system which used a camera with retina scan to get my temperature, and electronic questioning which then spit out a sticker with my name, time, and date on it so everyone knew each of us was “safe.”

So, each of those technologies and situations would help maintain a sense of safety and order as we return to whatever we might call this next phase of our existence.

Stay Safe with EBI

EBI is committed to helping the convention industry continue to climb back and host successful events. If, as new research indicates, meeting and event planners are itching to return to live, in-person gatherings, it’s not a question anymore ‘if’ they need a health and safety solution – it’s how quickly can they adopt a program that successfully protects their people now and in the future?

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. The platform serves as a central data repository and analytics engine for data collected through employee mobile health apps, thermal scanners, and contact tracing systems. These analytics give employers the insights they need to make critical business decisions to keep workplaces open and operational. It’s the ideal scalable solution for trade shows who want to safely and steadily return to in-person events.

Would you like a demo? Our team is standing by to chat with you.

Workplace Health & Safety

About the Author

Tricia O'Connor

Tricia O'Connor

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.

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