Anna Kosova, CAE
Anna Kosova, MBA, CAE, is principal at Capital Association Management in Washington, DC, and director of operations for the AABC Commissioning Group.
Instead of going with a virtual expo hall, the AABC Commissioning Group decided to host a technology showcase during its 2021 virtual conference. The short demos ended up being beneficial to attendees, exhibitors, and the organization.
Rarely have Plato’s words, “Necessity is the mother of invention,” been truer than they were in 2020. Events were one of the hardest-hit during the COVID crisis, but like many industries, the forced stop resulted in the acceleration of development in the digital space.
For event planners, that meant implementing virtual expo halls, but that option often fell short of expectations. In a pre-COVID setting, the promise of refreshments drew attendees to the exhibit floor for a casual chat. In a virtual environment, attendees scramble to master the user interface before the presentation begins. They can easily disregard the exhibitors, who appear separately from the educational sessions.
As the industry got its bearings, virtual platforms adapted to exhibitor concerns with video chat, gamification, and other features designed to improve interactions. However, the virtual expo hall has still not lived up to the experience of an onsite event. Some concepts didn’t transition well because their success was reliant on physical attendance.
Attendees of the CxEnergy 2021 Virtual Conference’s Tech Showcase enjoyed dynamic, back-to-back 15-minute technology demonstrations followed by engaging Q&As that helped solidify the audience’s understanding of the services and their applications. Those who were virtually present for the live demos could enter on the spot to win giveaways from participating exhibitors, such as a one-year subscription to commissioning documentation software. The first 300 registrants also received a $10 Amazon gift card.
We ditched the concept of virtual exhibit halls to guarantee attendee face time. After a year of socially distanced shows, exhibitors know the virtual engagement rate just isn’t the same as an onsite event. The showcase format gave exhibitors 20 minutes of attendee attention to demonstrate their technology and answer questions.
The 15-minute time limit for presentations also worked for attendees’ attention spans, even for exhibitors with a less engaging stage presence. For software demos, we utilized screen sharing. Many of our software vendors were most comfortable with this type of pitch, which made their presentations more effective.
During the breaks, we played upbeat music (tempo around 120 beats per minute) and displayed “we’ll be right back” banners with a “save the date” for our next conference. These simple measures prevented attendees from dropping off during technical switches and kept their heads bobbing while switching gears to answer a quick email.
We ditched the concept of virtual exhibit halls to guarantee attendee face time.
Demonstrations and Q&As were immediately followed by company raffles that rewarded attendees for watching presentations and kept the products and services at the forefront. Participating attendees submitted keywords such as “Exhibitor A Rocks!” to enter the raffles.
We encountered two technical issues that we’ll have to prepare for next time. Some exhibitors chose to send in prerecorded videos. We were concerned about the additional technological element and unsurprisingly, some of them froze, wouldn’t load properly, had no audio, or didn’t go as smoothly as they could have. We also had overly complex live feeds from videographers and audio teams. These were impressive when executed successfully, but some experienced audio issues that made them less effective.
Apart from tech issues, we experienced one problem with this format. We had to turn away some companies that were interested in participating because we had a specific number of timeslots available and didn’t want the showcase to run too long.
Given the technical difficulties some exhibitors struggled with, we’ll be making tech checks mandatory in the future. Some of our exhibitors skipped the tech check, hopping on the backend just minutes before their presentation, which created unnecessary risk.
The clock countdown feature for attendees and presenters was glitchy. We’ll change our approach to timekeeping for future events and consider reducing break times to two or three minutes instead of five. Five minutes feels a lot longer when you’re live.
In addition, some of our moderators chose not to be on camera when speaking. Instead of a friendly face, attendees watched a black screen with the name of the person talking. As you can imagine, this visual left something to be desired. At our next conference, we’ll require cameras or install banners when moderators speak.
Despite the tech glitches, we still consider the event a major success. Maybe one day, VR headsets will be in every home. But until then, we won’t be able to duplicate the onsite experience of attendees stopping by an exhibit booth while wandering the tradeshow hall. That said, a technology showcase is an effective solution for attendee engagement and exhibitor satisfaction.