Trade shows are back. Kind of.
While the pandemic put the kybosh on trade shows for the better part of two years, conference and event organizers, as well as meeting planners and associations, ushered in 2022 with a sense of optimism. After all, trade shows couldn’t be put on hold indefinitely. There were sales pipelines to fill, products to announce and customer relationships to maintain. The belief among many was that trade shows could be scheduled, organized and executed just like the good old days of 2019.
And trade shows are forging ahead to pre-pandemic times. Kind of.
The pent-up demand has some trade show attendees racing to convention centers. But show organizers have realized in the first several months of 2022 that many people are not ready for big in-person events, as well as how useful and convenient virtual or hybrid conferences have become over the last 24 months. The result is that trade show planners saw big drops in on-site attendance for conferences so far this year while maintaining sizable audiences online.
Lessons learned under the shadow of the pandemic, when many ambitious organizations hosted myriad hybrid events, will continue to be put into use as hybrid trade shows are now the norm. Here’s a list of lessons for conference and trade show organizers to keep in mind when planning hybrid events:
Take advantage of virtual and hybrid events’ flexibility.
There is no one size fits all when it comes to event formats, which allows for an infinite mix and match of trade show activities. Audiences can be at home and in person. Speakers can be on-site and off-site. Entertainment can be live and pre-recorded. You can even host one large event, such as an industry expo, composed of both in-person and virtual mini-events and activities: virtual networking events, live golf outings, pre-recorded presentations, live entertainment (that is both live broadcast and recorded for later viewing), live and virtual exhibit halls. The secret to success is embracing the agility of these formats. If you bring virtual and in-person event elements together in a thoughtful way, you can’t go wrong.
Spend time on the agenda.
To engage as many attendees as possible, regardless of how they participate, event organizers need to build an agenda that keeps in-person and virtual audiences equally involved. Remember that hybrid events are likely to attract participants with different attendance objectives. Therefore, it’s important to build an agenda that meets multiple needs.
· Pro Tip: Consider shortening session duration to 20-30 minutes, since studies show attention spans online are abbreviated. Presentations, expert panels, breakout sessions and networking events all keep attendees moving between content and activities and create an active event flow. And be sure to consider the length of the live event schedule. A hybrid event agenda of 10 a.m.–4 p.m. might work better than the traditional 8 a.m.–6 p.m. schedule of in-person events.
Assess where technology can add value before, during and after the event.
When planning a trade show, map the end-to-end attendee experience for both in-person participants as well as virtual participants. Identify “technology touchpoints” in each journey, trying to create as much overlap as possible.
· Pro Tip: Prior to the trade show, use a single registration platform for physical and virtual attendees. Provide all attendees with a digital badge in the form of a QR code, which can be scanned at sponsor booths, attendee sessions, etc., so that you are tracking all attendee behavior in a like-to-like fashion.
Teach virtual attendees how to use the event technology.
Sure, “Zoom” is now a verb in most people’s vocabulary, but also consider that some innovative apps designed specifically for trade shows may be unfamiliar to participants. Therefore, when planning a hybrid or virtual event, consider how best to over-communicate instructions for virtual participants to ensure everyone has access to the platform and can take full advantage of the activities within it. This may come in the form of a pre-recorded tutorial or by encouraging your sponsors to assign a live “host” at each virtual booth, who interacts with the visitors and walks them through how to download content or participate in a booth activity.
Create moments of connection for virtual attendees.
Virtual attendees don’t have the physical advantage of running into colleagues or collecting swag at sponsors’ booths. Therefore, put a little elbow grease into making these moments happen. Answer the question: How can we satisfy remote attendees’ appetites for what they’re missing? Then, identify ways to make this happen. This can include building virtual networking breaks into the agenda; sending “welcome packages” to all virtual registrants with T-shirts, coffee mugs and trade show collateral; or sponsoring virtual scavenger hunts or contests, where attendees are encouraged to visit various booths or participate in activities in the virtual venue.
The most successful hybrid trade shows are ones where the event planners embrace a motto of “give your audience as many ways as possible to enjoy virtual content.” You want to give enough so everyone feels included, which may mean overdoing it.
In closing, while virtual and hybrid events sustained trade show calendars during the pandemic, the reality is that these approaches are here to stay for several reasons:
1. The technology to deliver trade show experiences online has improved.
2. Many participants found that virtual events are just as useful and much more convenient. They are more than just a glorified Zoom call for 6-8 hours.
3. Done right, hybrid events are excellent vehicles for attracting and engaging new customers, showcasing products, promoting industry experts’ thought leadership, expanding event sponsorships and so much more.
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