Going Virtual


I can remember a time, long ago, when people with shared interests used to meet in large gatherings. They would travel from far and wide and journey to a single location in order to sell their wares, share stories, renew old friendships and make new connections. By day, these travelers would converge to discuss their trades, goods and commodities. By night, revelry was the norm, with celebrations of food, drink and feelings of mirth among the masses of friends and comrades. These pilgrimages were fondly referred to as TRADE SHOWS. Maybe you’ve heard of them. Maybe you even remember them.

I write this with a bit of sarcasm — of course. Although, in reality, it does seem like the last in-person trade show took place so long ago that it might as well be part of folklore shared over a tankard of mead. These days, as we all know, trade shows have been replaced by videoconferences, webinars and virtual gatherings where we present as digital representations of our actual selves (“Do these 1s and 0s make me look fat?”) and try to convince everyone else that we’re genuinely enjoying ourselves (we’re not) as much as we did when we could be in the same room together.

Unfortunately, this is our current reality and, whether we like it or not, virtual meetings are the name of the game for the foreseeable future. So the question has become: Can we still achieve a positive outcome/experience that is on par with that of an in-person event? Over the last many months, my goal as an attendee at (many) virtual events has been to discover the answer to this question. Below I will discuss the discoveries I have made as well as some practical things to focus on and eventually generate that positive result.

As an attendee planning for a trade show, I immediately go to my “trade show patterns and routines,” which many of us are sure to have. We know exactly what needs to be packed in our bags for the day, we have our favorite food and drink spots — depending on the venue — and we all know how to map out our daily schedule, whether we’re exhibiting or attending. Here’s my typical “attendee routine”: I like to get to the convention center when the show floor opens and immediately walk to the far end of the hall. I proceed to walk up and down the center of each aisle to do my early reconnaissance. I don’t like to stop; instead I make note of what I’d like to return to later. I deftly avoid the sales reps who try to make eye contact and use their practiced qualifying comments and questions in order to bring me into their booths. While I plan to speak with some of them later, I need to get the lay of the land first. I try not to schedule my first actual meeting until late morning, when I’ve had ample time to wrap my head around the entire scope of the event around me. I have met attendees who practice entirely different routines but generally speaking, we all have them.

Routinizing is our very human way of organizing things in our heads and making sense of what would otherwise be mental chaos. I genuinely enjoy going through my routine for many reasons. But I’ve discovered that practically none of those reasons are translatable at a virtual event. I’ve found that regardless of beautifully laid out virtual booths, perfectly looking stock image avatars of company reps (are they actually sitting in bathrobes in their kitchens?!), or attractive graphics, there’s just no way to emulate that same feeling of walking the trade show floor.

Of course, there’s also nothing like physically getting your hands on a new product to test it out and see how it works, and what it looks and feels like. The excitement of trying out something new is always a big draw. Unfortunately, I don’t find that same excitement in video presentations; these we can get any time, without an event. They are just not novel enough to bring the same excitement as we have at a live event.

And as much as we all like getting SWAG (yes, I absolutely need that two-sizes-too large-T-shirt because it’s free, damn it!), the possibility of getting it shipped to me five days after the event just doesn’t have the same appeal as taking it from the hands of the company reps themselves.

So what do I believe can produce that positive outcome and experience at a virtual event? There are a few, depending on your trade-show goals, but I’ll focus on two that I found have worked best.

Educational sessions are a mainstay at trade shows. Whether as opportunities for certification or just to learn more about a product or platform, these sessions are a great use of time. And in my opinion, they can be presented just as effectively online. With a dynamic presenter (which is necessary in-person as well), and a chat that allows for questions, I have often found myself equally engaged at these virtual educational sessions as I am when they are in-person. I learn just as much and have enough opportunities to ask questions and converse with the other attendees and the presenter. And because these virtual sessions are usually recorded and available after the initial live broadcast, attendees can maximize their schedules and take full advantage of all the educational opportunities that are offered. At an in-person trade show you usually have to decide between two or three sessions that are being offered at the same time. With the virtual option, you don’t have to miss out on anything.

The most obvious and significant trade show experience that can’t be exactly recreated online is the in-person networking. There’s nothing like being in the same space as a friend, colleague or a group of people and shooting the breeze or talking shop. It builds camaraderie and synthesizes relationships that can generate business, friendships and a sense of belonging. I’m not going to pretend that any chat feature can fully replace in-person networking. But seeing the incredibly (and necessary) fast-paced evolution of virtual platforms over the last year, I do believe that the features are getting much better at facilitating effective networking and relationship building. We’re starting to see “rooms” pop up in virtual meeting platforms that allow for focused discussions on certain topics or interests.

Engagement on the part of event organizers and exhibitor reps with attendees has become a much more featured component of virtual events. Seeing someone respond to you with “@Your_Name” can give the feeling that people are listening to you, and it encourages further discussion and participation. Additionally, networking online can be a lot easier for many people that aren’t comfortable walking up to complete strangers and striking up a conversation. That takes guts and practice. Doing it online, while not exactly the same, is easier and can facilitate relationships that otherwise may not have occurred.

So while I do yearn for the good old days when we can all get back together and do things in person the way our ancestors did (although we’re probably better dressed and hopefully smell a little better), I do try to look for that silver lining in virtual events and make the best of a less-than-ideal situation. If I focus on the uniquely positive aspects of a virtual show, then I can walk away feeling like it was worth the time and effort of not putting my pants on to attend. Hopefully you can too. I look forward to getting back together so we can all sit down and share that pint of mead again.