What Trade Shows Should Do Now – Part 3: Blend Virtual & In-Person Events

Blend Virtual & In-Person Events

Virtual events.

For years, that phrase has ignited fierce debate in the trade show and events world. And even now that we’ve been forced to make all meetings virtual, some people are still kicking and screaming.

But the fact is that right now any event coming up soon on the calendar has three options: cancel, postpone, or find a way to convert to virtual.

Why the idea of incorporating a remote audience is so difficult to understand, I’m not sure. We’ve been doing it in other ways our entire lives – I mean very few of us have ever attended a Hollywood-style awards show, championship sporting event, or royal wedding in person. Yet most of us have some degree of personal experience with each of these events because we watched them, either on TV or online.

Now before anyone starts shouting at me that these examples are entirely different, and that nothing can replace face-to-face events, particularly for trade shows … you’re right.

I’ve spent more than two decades in the trade show industry as an exhibitor, event organizer, and consultant. Obviously I believe in the power of face-to-face as much as anyone.

But people need to stop being afraid or threatened by virtual elements and realize that our world is virtual – especially now. People are used to watching things online. And these days even concerts and weddings are going virtual. (I just saw an article this week on a couple that got married with both the minister and guests joining in via Zoom.)

The key is to recognize that going virtual is simply another tool in our event-planning toolkit, so we need to figure out how to use it.

  1. Start with the strategy, not the tools. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to virtual events, so you’ve got to figure out what matters most to you and your audience, then reverse-engineer to create those essential elements, using whatever tools can best deliver on your objectives.
  2. Don’t try to copy your in-person event. Not everything will translate to a virtual format – trade shows are especially tricky. For years there have been vendors who create a virtual world with avatars and such. But trade shows are not a video game! It’s not as much about how an exhibitor’s booth looks in the virtual space, but rather how that exhibitor is able to interact with attendees. Offer opportunities for matchmaking with one-on-one appointments, product demos, or live Q&A.
  3. Find ways to build community and create engagement. This can come in many forms. Some events incorporate a live chat feature, while others have gamification elements. How can you make it more fun and rewarding? Once again, this goes back to understanding your audience and what they want to get out of attending.
  4. Embrace the extended shelf life of your event. One of the benefits of digital content is how easily it can easily be repurposed. Once you have those videos and other elements, you can post them on your website (behind a member login, if that’s an issue), share snippets in social media, or use them to promote for next year’s event.
  5. Ask for input and feedback from your attendees, and incorporate what makes sense. Reward people for taking an active part in the process and let them know they’re important, even when they’re not right in front of you.

Obviously there are a lot more aspects to planning a virtual event. We’ll be delving into many of those topics in the Virtual Event Trailblazers Summit coming up on May 20 and 21. I’ve invited several event organizers to share their insights and strategies with you – things like building a planning and support team, working with speakers, enhancing experiences for sponsors and exhibitors, and more. You can get all the details and register for free at www.ExhibitMarketersCafe.com/virtualsummit.

So instead of viewing virtual and in-person as an either/or issue, we need to view it as a blended strategy, or multi-channel approach to events for the upcoming months and possibly years. There will likely be potential attendees who may not feel comfortable, or simply aren’t allowed to travel due to risk management, budget or timing issues. Just because they can’t be there in person doesn’t mean they don’t want to be part of the event.

So find ways to include everyone and make them feel welcome. I promise you won’t be limiting your event – you’ll be enhancing it and expanding your reach.

If you missed Part 1 of this series on how to prepare for a trade show comeback, be sure to check that out here. And in Part 2, we addressed the importance of keeping the lines of communication open.

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