How to Pull-off a Trade Show During the Pandemic

With strong lockdown measures instituted in March to stymie the spread of COVID-19, the roller coaster of emotions that comes with executing an event came to a standstill. But in late June, I got the opportunity to get back on that ride for a two-day international trade show.

Say what? How inappropriate during a pandemic!

What was even more tasteless is I attended the event in my slippers, no makeup and hardly dressed for the business occasion.

I am of course talking about a virtual trade show.

Once I realized our company’s events would be on hold indefinitely, I signed up for a virtual event management course as our clients still needed to do business. It was a 90 degree turn but it felt right; we were creating solutions while the world around us was hitting so many roadblocks.

The cancelled events we had on the books were for Atlantic Canadian companies to showcase their products to international buyers. Export is so important to our economy, and the overall success of many entrepreneurs in processing and manufacturing depends on their ability to do business with importers.

Enter the idea of a virtual trade show. I knew the concept could work but it was a risk because you need users to commit to maximizing the opportunities it presents.

Is it a real-life show?

Well, no. But the concept is about as close to it as possible without being together in person. It’s interactive, includes conversations in real-time with built-in translation, allows for video demonstrations, presentations and interfacing with the help of software, and unlimited branding and graphic design.

Feedback from the event has been extremely positive. Not only did the platform and format work well for all involved but I personally think the results for small Atlantic Canada companies have been much better than attending a large live trade show. Normally at in-person events, thousands of companies showcase their products over two or three days. Buyers have the overwhelming task of deciding which products to check out because it’s not possible to see them all. With the virtual event, 40 companies were the centre of everyone’s eye. Qualified and sought-after buyers from big companies from across the globe attended the show with no distractions from competitors. It was a tremendous opportunity for local businesses.

Buyers invited to the event were also happy to attend. Remember, their job is to explore new opportunities and find innovative products. The cancellation of all trade shows in 2020 affected their ability to transact with suppliers. The virtual event helped them meet their own key performance indicators. It was a win-win situation.

What I Learned Hosting a Virtual Event

I’ve been asked by many industry colleagues about the virtual experience. Now that the inaugural event is behind us, here are my thoughts.

1. Do not underestimate the workload. Although we had a software provider who offered support and we paid for additional help, putting the event together took more hours than I had originally planned.

2. If it’s a lot for you to learn, there’s even more (and it’s harder) for your vendors. Exhibitors are asked to build their own virtual booths. This can be a big task for some small businesses that do not have a marketing department.

3. Encourage exhibitors to work with a marketing agency. When scrolling from booth to booth, the companies that worked with a design team on their brand really stood out.

4. Don’t feel compelled to use all the bells and whistles. Virtual event platforms offer many options. Be selective and only utilize those that will help make your event better and provide a quality user experience. For instance, we deliberated using gamification but decided it was not right for this particular event. (I look forward to using it in our next one, though.)

5. Work with a team. Running a virtual event requires more ‘manpower’ than you’d think. Our team was 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 hit a groove.

6. Engage tech support. We had tech support online for the duration of the event, which was invaluable. He monitored the ‘technical help’ chat box and answered questions related to navigation issues, screen resolution and so on. This allowed our staff to focus on what mattered most, which was the exhibitor and attendee experience.

7. Monitor chats. We had a couple people who weren’t exhibitors try to promote their services. Since we assigned someone to regularly monitor open chats, we were able to delete those posts swiftly.

8. Hire a project management company. If considering a virtual event, don’t fool yourself into thinking you can task an administrative assistant with this job. It requires a team of people with both event and project management skills. We had a critical path with more than 150 tasks to perform.

Sara Robinson is president of Host Event and Association Management, which is celebrating 10 years in business in 2020. Based in New Brunswick, Sara and her staff plan and manage corporate events, meetings and conferences worldwide, and have recently developed their expertise in virtual events. She has 25 years’ experience in the hospitality and events industry, and currently sits on the board of directors for the Friends of the Moncton Hospital. Sara can be reached at [email protected].


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